When Worlds Collide

After reading Ben Thompson’s recent blog post titled “The Net Neutrality Wake Up Call,” I couldn’t help but shake my head a little.

This is not a knock on Thompson; his article was well written and his qualitative analysis of the tech industry is exceptional in my opinion. However, it often seems like a strong belief in (some would say “love of”) technology creates a bit of cognitive dissonance. Technologists of all stripes, whether journalist, pundit, analyst, or consumer, often seem to have an almost religious relationship with technology. They believe in its transformative power and often do not understand or appreciate why elements of society would resist it. To paraphrase Thompson, he stated that often when the tech industry is challenged in a fashion in which its fundamental operation may suffer, tech supporters will generally wait until the last minute to raise their voices to meet the challenge. I think that is the case because the tech industry seems to have a hard time understanding that some people and organizations, for distinct reasons, are simply not as invested in the change technology brings as they are.

I’d first like to address Thompson’s statement of technology “changing the world.” It’s very tempting to immediately view change as a positive, especially in hindsight. However, consider that the World Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the rise and fall of several great empires also changed the world. While change is necessary for the world to evolve, it’s a mistake to ignore the negative impacts of such a process. In the same way technology has enabled the most noble elements of society, it has also benefited those with the least noble intent. Not to mention there are injustices committed in the world today that technology has yet to touch. In fact, as is the case of certain working conditions, it could easily be stated technology may, at times, even facilitate injustice.

And who is to say, when all is said and done, we won’t bear technology’s ultimate costs. We live increasingly in a world in which our actions are monitored around the clock. Technology has built an apparatus the likes of which tyranny never had. If the U.S. were to fall into the hands of a dictator, he (or she) would not only control the most technologically advanced arsenal in history, but also the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus ever devised. As dystopian as it may seem, there are many plausible scenarios in which technology is just as likely to seriously harm our civilization as it is to enrich it.

Change is the root of technological advancement and conflict often accompanies great change. In the current Net Neutrality situation, I see both the seeds of change and conflict. As technological growth accelerates, technology companies increasingly encounter resistance from entrenched interests. Whether it’s Tesla facing the legacy car dealerships, Amazon’s dust up with Hachette, Uber and Lyft challenging the regulatory system that favors the traditional taxi industry, or Aereo waging its court battle against the television and cable industry, the forces of disruptive change are meeting stiff resistance from incumbents who have spent a generation or more not only building their industries but leveraging political power to protect them.

Technologists like to view those interests as the “old guard,” dinosaurs hopelessly clinging to an archaic system already been rendered obsolete. This is a grave simplification in my view. Resistance is a natural response to challenges that threaten the very existence of a being or system. No entity ever wants to be displaced; it’s often a painful process that destroys years of “creative construction.”

I’ve witnessed a great deal of disruptive change in my relatively short lifetime, particularly in the technology industry. Within the last seven years, I’ve seen the original Personal Computer (PC), a paradigm that took over two decades to become ubiquitous, be completely overwhelmed by mobile computing, a technological wave staggering in its implications. Fortunately, this change has been mostly beneficial for the huge majority of people, so resistance has been minimal.

However, I can’t help but wonder what will happen as technology becomes more pervasively active versus passive. How will people respond to a sky full of drones or streets with self-driving cars and robots? Will this become our new normal or will people view them as intrusions or worse, potential extensions of the surveillance/police state? How much will technology supplant the things that are distinctly human, such as the jovial UPS guy on our route or the friendly server at our favorite restaurant? It wasn’t very long ago people used to deliver milk to our doorstep. When drones are delivering our packages and our cars are driving us rather than vice versa, will we simply ease into this new reality or will some elements of our society vigorously, maybe even violently, resist this change?

Net Neutrality has sparked this thought exercise in me because it is one of the rare instances in which I can witness the effects of this technological sea change happening at its intersection. On one side, you have the interests representing the physical internet, the “pipes” so to speak. They live in a world of slow development, high capital expenditure and investment. Their end game is Return on Investment. The way they see it, their pipes are extremely expensive to build and maintain so they want to make as much money on them as possible to drive both value creation and future infrastructure growth. On the other side are the interests of the “virtual” internet, the ones and zeros, the digital realm. They live in a world of rapid development, much lower capital expenditure and investment relative to the returns. Their end game is network effects. The way they see it, capitalism is now being driven by the innovation they produce, eliminating a variety of business and communication inefficiencies while enabling billions of people to come out of poverty by making the tools for entrepreneurship amazingly inexpensive and accessible to all. To me, it’s the perfect example of not only how our world is changing, but also our perceptions of wealth, worth, and value.

Software and intelligent machines are altering our lives, but we often forget how much they still rely on the resources of the physical world which is deeply rooted in the past. Tesla has leveraged technology to transform how cars are built, powered, and sold yet it still requires a massive amount of physical capital to make its business viable. Our smartphones, which open up vast windows of possibility for even the world’s poorest people, are still mostly assembled by hand in factories. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Netflix may have transformed the way we find and consume information, entertainment, and products, but they still rely heavily on huge amounts of physical infrastructure. The virtual world intersects the physical world a lot more than some are willing to admit. The digital world relies on the material world for its existence. Change happens at the speed of thought in virtual space, but far more slowly in real time. As those forces continue to collide, I expect to see far more resistance, particularly as that change directly impacts the vested interests of the physical world.

As far Net Neutrality goes, I’m not sure how it’s going to play out — though, if I have to admit it, I’m a little pessimistic about the situation being resolved in a way that benefits innovation and consumers.

However, I’m more certain the virtual world and the physical world will increasingly find themselves at odds. How those conflicts resolve will reveal a great deal about how our world will likely change in both the short and long term. Will the politically connected, entrenched interests prevail? Or will they eventually be swept away by the irresistible technological wave that seems determined to swiftly transform our world more in the next decade than it has over the entire course of human history?

The present may favor the former outcome, but history certainly favors the latter.

I Will Never, EVER Buy An Oculus Rift

Roughly six out of seven people in the world don’t use Facebook. Count me in that group of six. I’ve never been a fan of it. When I think of Facebook, I think of a club. Not a social group, like the Boy Scouts, but more of a trendy dance club. Nothing improves the mystique of a place like a velvet rope to keep out the goobers and riff raff. So, in its early days, you had to be a certain “type” of person to get into Facebook. It was the spot for young college kids — probably as self-important a group as there is. It became the place to see and be seen. To be on Facebook was to be on the cutting edge, part of an exclusive club of the movers and shakers of tomorrow.

Word got around and, like every exclusive club, more people wanted in. The quickest way to ruin the appeal of an exclusive club is a liberal door policy, but keeping people out is like leaving money on the table. So, if you’re smart, you open up another club across town with the same name and relax your admission standards a little. Once that club reaches capacity, you do the same thing in a different part of town and so on. Before you know it, not only do you have a town full of clubs you control brimming with people, but you’ve made it almost impossible for anyone else to start a club by controlling both mindshare and location.

That isn’t quite how it played out with Facebook, but the principles are the same. From its modest beginning as a online spot for college kids, it strategically opened up its service to more and more groups until it grew into the juggernaut it is today.

Now, Facebook is arguably the most important platform on the planet. At the root of its service is a data acquisition operation rivaled only by Google and the United States government. It mines the lives of over a billion people to give advertisers the information they need to sell them more products and services. In the process, it has often run roughshod over the privacy of its users. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar corporation built on the main premise of learning as much about your life — including your family, friends, passions, peeves, and habits — as possible. Some would claim the loss of some privacy is an acceptable trade-off for the service it provides. The ability to be effortlessly connected to friends past and present as well as family and anyone else as desired. Maybe so. But, as far as I’m concerned, Facebook is in the business of trading your identity for cold, hard cash.

So, when I found out that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s ironically enigmatic CEO, personally pulled the trigger on buying Oculus, maker of the stunning Rift virtual reality (VR) headset, I was a little upset — if upset means rending your garments and screaming to the heavens for vengeance. WHAT?!?! HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?!

I was SO looking forward to buying an Oculus Rift.

If you’re a hardcore gamer like I am, you’ve salivated about the potential of virtual reality for a long time. The Rift is the answer to the fevered dreams of many a geek, the holy grail of gaming. It comes with the promise of putting the gamer IN the action rather than in front of it. If your idea of fun is barreling into bystanders, driving at speeds that would make you the object of a multi-state police chase in real life, jumping off of skyscrapers with nary a scratch, and killing enough people even John Woo would get cold sweats, the thought of doing it in virtual worlds makes you warm and tingly all over. Gaming is finally going to the next level.

Then along comes Facebook.

When it bought Oculus, I did what thousands of rabid fanboys all over the world did (very vocally) on social media. I vowed to never, EVER buy an Oculus Rift. C’mon, there is NO way I’d buy a product made by a company whose sole purpose is to sell my identity to advertisers.

Facebook is a monolith, a ridiculously pervasive data collection operation; imagine if it could CREATE the world in which you live? How much could it learn about you by not only understanding your relationships and preferences in the real world, but actually creating worlds in which it PROVIDES those things to you?

However, as with many things that spur self-righteousness, the reality is a lot more nuanced than that.

I’ll give Facebook credit: it is an extremely well-managed company and Mark Zuckerberg is an exceptionally savvy businessman. He looked beyond the world of gaming and realized virtual reality is more than just a gaming peripheral. It has the potential to completely change our interaction models. VR doesn’t just allow us to be in the game, it allows us to be ANYWHERE:

Imagine experiencing the beaches of Bora Bora or admiring the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris;

Imagine raving all night in Ibiza or skiing down the slopes of the Swiss Alps;

Imagine attending a production of Madame Butterfly at La Scala in Milan or Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York;

Imagine soaring above the Serengeti on a safari unlike anything currently possible …

… in your underwear, from the comfort of your couch. Pretty soon you won’t have to imagine; it’s coming to you courtesy of VR.

The future implications of VR technology are profound. Virtual classrooms will bring state-of-the-art educational resources to millions around the world. Combined with robotic and drone technologies, it will not just allow us to experience different environments, but actually interact with them. Drones and robots will become our “avatars”, granting us super hero-like abilities — enhanced strength, speed, and even flight. More importantly, it will restore ability to those limited by disease or illness.

But one of its most exciting prospects goes well beyond that. What if you could “jump into” someone else’s life?

Imagine seeing the experience of a police officer, firefighter, or soldier in real time as if you were actually there. What if you could have jumped into Anderson Cooper’s experience in Iraq during the conflict and personally EXPERIENCED the chaos? Consider what it would be like to see through the eyes of a Formula 1 driver as he blasts down a track at 220 miles per hour. Think of seeing Earth through the eyes of an astronaut on the International Space Station.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. The technology to best make such scenarios possible is also widely considered one of the most odious new developments in recent memory — Google Glass.

Yes, THAT Google Glass.

Sure, people hate Glass now, but the new paradigms for VR would benefit tremendously when coupled with technology that allows a bird’s eye view. Glass is designed to function as an everyday device and its potential pervasiveness makes a natural complement for VR.

The combination of the Oculus Rift and Google Glass could end up being one of the most important technology combinations in history. For instance, Rift + Glass could completely revolutionize journalism. Instead of most news being offered from the third person perspective, critical events can be experienced in the first person. Instead of just reading the news, we can be inside of it. What happens when people can not only get better information, but also better context and perspective?

What excites me about the Oculus Rift (and Sony’s Project Morpheus) is not just virtual reality, but EXTENDED reality. The ability for VR to extend our every day reality, allowing us to experience people, places, and events anywhere in the world from the comfort of our own homes has amazing potential. I’m anxiously looking forward to the day when virtual reality and extended reality become every day reality.

So, would I ever buy an Oculus Rift?

No. Absolutely not. Not in a million years. I would absolutely, positively NEVER buy one.

Just don’t quote me on that.

PC Stands for Personal Choice

After reading Ben Bajarin’s recent article, Computing’s S-Curve, I thought it might be prudent to offer another perspective.

Before I get started, I want to state for the record there are few analysts in whom I place a great deal of stock. However, I find the “Bens” as I like to call them (Ben Bajarin, Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson) are particularly insightful; even when I don’t agree with them, their research and perspectives are always top notch. If the main purpose of analysis is to motivate thought and understanding, the services they offer to the technology community are an invaluable resource.

That being stated, let’s address the notion of “unfair comparisons,” particularly in the case of smartphones and PCs. It’s understandable why some people think the two devices should not be compared. Comparisons are normally drawn between things similar to one another. It’s fair to compare cars but how fair is it to compare a car to a truck? In that instance, it is the use case that will determine the utility of the comparison. I may determine in the comparison that a truck more fully suits my needs while someone else may determine a car is a better fit for their lifestyle. The key is context. If you are going to make a comparison between objects that have similarities and fundamental differences, it helps to know how both will be used in any given situation.

I’m a huge fan of smartphones and less a fan of PCs. I find I use a smartphone far more often than I use a PC. However, I rarely use my smartphone to watch TV or movies or do any input intensive tasks. When it comes to watching video, my TV (plus PS3, PS4, and Roku) is my device of choice. When it comes to performing input intensive or pixel precise tasks, the PC is my device of choice. It seems unreasonable to expect my smartphone to perform tasks for which other devices are more suitable. That is generally the way it goes. As Benedict Evans likes to state, it’s all different forms of glass. Absent any economic limitations, most people will choose whichever piece of glass is most suitable for any particular task.

Which is one of the reasons I don’t accept the notion the PC will ever “die.” Can anyone envision a world in which all work will be performed on the go? What sense would it make to use a tablet at a desk (at least not without a way to prop it up)? Even seated on a couch, why support the weight of a tablet when a laptop offers better ergonomics, greater screen real estate, and a tactile keyboard? (yes, I understand that there are many people who can type very well on glass but the superiority of tactile keyboards is well established) For that matter, why watch video on a tablet, a device I have to support in one or both hands, rather than watch an HDTV I don’t have to hold at all? Why game exclusively on a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, when a gaming console controller is just as light, has actual tactile controls, and much better ergonomics?

Use case almost always correlates to ergonomics and vice versa. Are smartphones good for pixel precise work? Not only is the answer no, it is apparent they never will be. The claim can be credibly made relatively few people need that capability but it doesn’t change the fact tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people actually do need it. How many need tactile keyboards? If software is indeed “eating the world,” you can safely make the assumption that at least tens of thousands of programmers will need them for the foreseeable future as well as hundreds of thousands of writers and journalists. How many use cases are there for a tablet which provides a large screen and high mobility? Hundreds of thousands to millions in health care and various logistical functions now have the tool to bring the power of personal computing wherever they are. It all just depends on what you need.

There is a saying, “The best gun is the one you have with you”. But no one denies there are circumstances when a pistol is more suitable than a rifle, a rifle is more suitable than a shotgun and a rocket launcher is more suitable than any of the former. We live in a time of greater personal computing diversity. The smartphone has put the power of a PC directly into our pockets. It’s the “gun” we almost always have with us and it’s amazingly powerful. But it’s only one of many useful form factors. The first for many but unlikely to be the only or last. Trucks didn’t disappear once better cars started being built. Motorcycles still roam the highways and byways of the world. As long as people have unique needs, they will choose the products that suit those needs. In computing, it is the unique ergonomics of each device that best determine how those needs are met.

So, as it relates to personal computing, nothing is truly “dying” … but everything is changing.