Issue #407
thought-shrapnel-logo-updated
a project of Dynamic Skillset Ltd.

Hello!

First off, I'd like to apologise to those who haven't been receiving this newsletter recently. I switched on MailPoet's 'remove inactive subscribers' option, as detailed here, and... I don't think it works very well. People who very much are active subscribers have complained they're not receiving it. So hopefully that's fixed now!

As I mentioned last week, this will be the last Thought Shrapnel of the year. I hope you have a great December and, if like me you're usually a bit grouchy about putting up lights and decorations early, I hope you lean into it a bit this year for the sake of those around you. Goodness knows we all need cheering up during a pandemic.

Before I share the many things I seem to have written this week, I'd just like to thank Bryan Alexander for replying to every newsletter in 2020 with some form of encouragement. You're awesome. Around this time last year, Bryan invited me over to New York to speak on Truth, Lies, and Digital Fluency as part of an ITHAKA Next Wave event. It was one of my last speaking engagements before COVID-19 upended everything, so I have particularly fond memories of the trip.

Actually, while we're doing shout-outs, I'd like to thank my co-op collaborators Laura Hilliger and Bryan Mathers who have proved to be even more excellent human beings than I thought they were at the start of the year. And, of course, I'm not sure what I would do without my wonderful wife, Hannah, who seems to be able to adapt and flourish in any given environment.

Finally, if you're going through a tough time, for whatever reason, then you should get some help. I'm now in 'maintenance mode' after a year of therapy triggered by the death of a good friend of mine. That event brought up all kinds of stuff which I've explored with my therapist, along with other things I'd never dealt with. I'd hasten to add that I had a happy childhood, get on well with my family, and have had a successful career, which is even more reason for me to encourage 'normal' people to treat therapists as personal trainers for the mind. Ask around for recommendations or, if you're in the UK, try this.

OK then, without further ado, here's that list of things I've published elsewhere:
Take care out there, and see you in 2021!

Did someone forward you this? Sign up for yourself here 👀

A world without apps?

Steve Jobs standing next to a huge screen that shows the original iPhone. The words on the screen read "Your life in your pocket. The ultimate digital device."
When Steve Jobs demonstrated the iPhone in 2007, he didn't show off the App Store. That's because it didn't exist.
The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone. And so, you can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone. And these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services. They can make a call, they can send an email, they can look up a location on Google Maps.
Steve Jobs

Jobs' vision was for a world where web apps worked as well as native apps. Unfortunately, at the time, web technologies weren't quite ready for his vision, so, almost as a temporary workaround, Apple invented a billion-dollar industry.

Writing in The New York Times, Shira Ovide reflects on the recent controversy around Epic Games and Apple, among other things, and wonders whether we actually need apps?
Apple and Google dictate much of what is allowed on the world’s phones. There are good outcomes from this, including those companies weeding out bad or dangerous apps and giving us one place to find them.
But this comes with unhappy side effects. Apple and Google charge a significant fee on many in-app purchases, and they’ve forced app makers into awkward workarounds. (Ever try to buy a Kindle e-book on an iPhone app? You can’t.) The growing complaints from app makers show that the downsides of app control may be starting to outweigh the benefits.
You know what’s free from Apple and Google’s iron grip? The web. Smartphones could lean on the web instead.
Shira Ovide, Imagine a World Without Apps (The new York Times)

It's almost impossible for a small developer to get discovered in the Apple and Google app stores these days. As VentureBeat put it three years ago, "you have a better chance of making the NBA than making your app viral."

Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, make an alternative, web-centric world a reality. When Google launched its gaming service, Stadia, on iOS, it used a PWA to bypass the Apple App Store.
Screenshots showing Pinterest PWA being installed on a smartphone.
Organisations from Twitter and Tinder to the Financial Times have PWAs. Pinterest used it to increase the number of people installing their app by 45%.
This is about imagining an alternate reality where companies don’t need to devote money to creating apps that are tailored to iPhones and Android phones, can’t work on any other devices and obligate app makers to hand over a cut of each sale.
Maybe more smaller digital companies could thrive. Maybe our digital services would be cheaper and better. Maybe we’d have more than two dominant smartphone systems. Or maybe it would be terrible. We don’t know because we’ve mostly lived with unquestioned smartphone app dominance.
Shira Ovide, Imagine a World Without Apps (The new York Times)

Initiatives such as Mozilla's Firefox OS were cursed with being too early to the market. Had they kept going, or if it were launching now, I think we'd see very different adoption rates.

As it is, and as Todd Weaver, CEO of Purism points out, it's going to require a combination of both market dynamics and regulation to fix the current situation. Let's get back to that original vision of the web as the platform for human flourishing.

He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he that undervalues others will oppress them

🎺 What Time Feels Like When You’re Improvising — "A great example of flow state is found in many improvised art forms, from music to acting to comedy to poetry, also known as “spontaneous creativity.” Improvisation is a highly complex form of creative behavior that justly inspires our awe and admiration. The ability to improvise requires cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and discipline-specific skills, and it improves with training."

💼 SEC proposes rules for giving gig workers equity — "The five-year pilot program would allow gig companies to issue equity as long as it's no more than 15% of a worker's compensation during a 12-month period, and no more than $75,000 in value during a 36-month period (based on the share price when it's issued)."

🧠 Your Brain Is Not for Thinking — "Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realize."

Social Unrest Is the Inevitable Legacy of the Covid Pandemic — "Like turpentine on flames, Covid-19 has rekindled older divisions, resentments and inequities across the world. In the U.S., Black Americans suffer disproportionately from police brutality, but also from the coronavirus — now these traumas merge. And everywhere, the poor fare worse than the rich."

👣 A new love for medieval-style travel — "We might today think of pilgrimage as a specifically religious form of travel. But even in the past, the sightseeing was as important as the spirituality. Dr Marion Turner, a scholar at Oxford University who studies Geoffrey Chaucer, points out that “it was a time away from ordinary society, and allowed for a time of play.”

Quotation-as-title by Dr Johnson. Image via xkcd.

What kind of world do we want? (or, why regulation matters)

I saw a thread on Mastodon recently, which included this image:
Three images with the title 'Space required to Transport 48 People'. Each image is the same, with cars backed up down a road. The caption for each image is 'Car', 'Electric Car' and 'Autonomous Car', respectively.
Someone else replied with a meme showing a series of images with the phrase "They feed us poison / so we buy their 'cures' / while they ban our medicine". The poison in this case being cars burning fossil fuels, the cures being electric and/or autonomous cars, and the medicine public transport.

There's similar kind of thinking in the world of tech, with at least one interviewee in the documentary The Social Dilemma saying that people should be paid for their data. I've always been uneasy about this, so it's good to see the EFF come out strongly against it:
Let’s be clear: getting paid for your data—probably no more than a handful of dollars at most—isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with privacy today. Yes, a data dividend may sound at first blush like a way to get some extra money and stick it to tech companies. But that line of thinking is misguided, and falls apart quickly when applied to the reality of privacy today. In truth, the data dividend scheme hurts consumers, benefits companies, and frames privacy as a commodity rather than a right.
EFF strongly opposes data dividends and policies that lay the groundwork for people to think of the monetary value of their data rather than view it as a fundamental right. You wouldn’t place a price tag on your freedom to speak. We shouldn’t place one on our privacy, either.
Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the EFF points out, who would get to set the price of that data, anyway? Also, individual data is useful to companies, but so is data in aggregate. Is that covered by such plans?

Facebook makes around $7 per user, per quarter. Even if they gave you all of that, is that a fair exchange?
Those small checks in exchange for intimate details about you are not a fairer trade than we have now. The companies would still have nearly unlimited power to do what they want with your data. That would be a bargain for the companies, who could then wipe their hands of concerns about privacy. But it would leave users in the lurch.
All that adds up to a stark conclusion: if where we’ve been is any indication of where we’re going, there won’t be much benefit from a data dividend. What we really need is stronger privacy laws to protect how businesses process our data—which we can, and should do, as a separate and more protective measure.
Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the rest of the article goes on to explain, we're already in a world of 'pay for privacy' which is exacerbating the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. We need regulation and legislation to curb this before it gallops away from us.

Until next week!

Doug
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is sent out to awesome people who are curious about intersection of technology and society. It is published by Dr. Doug Belshaw of Dynamic Skillset Ltd.


You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via LinkedIn and Mastodon.


Some say he's feeling festive. Others say he's somewhat restive. No-one says he's autosuggestive.
Many thanks to Bryan Mathers of Visual Thinkery for the Thought Shrapnel logo.

All product names, logos, and brands are property of their respective owners and are used in this newsletter are for identification purposes only.

Unsubscribe | Manage subscription

🤘 Super-secret link to reward those who scroll to the bottom of newsletters!