Welcome to Episode 79 of The Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host John Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey Jon, good to be here.
This week Dirk, I think we’ll dig into three news items that are related to the themes of our show around user experience and the digital life. I wanted to raise with you today, the snafu around Uber and a major misstep from a PR angle, where an Uber executive revealed, unbeknownst to him I guess, he revealed to a reporter basically that he was interested in having a large fund put together of $1 million to specifically go after reporters who are criticizing Uber. I guess this executive felt unfairly. Put together some money to dig up dirt on these reporters, and basically try to squash them, which is interesting both from a no-holds-barred technology culture, which apparently Uber has at least some of that.
Secondly, from a speech issue, like when money is actually providing people with some tools to do what sounds like some not very nice things to other people. Then thirdly, from the perspective that this journalist that the executive was going to go after was actually a woman, which raises all of the questions about women in tech that we’ve talking about recently on the show. Dirk, I know that you have some pretty strong opinions about the macho culture around tech, and the no-holds-barred approach to things. We’ve had similar discussions around Xinga’s approach, no-holds-barred approach. How does this strike you, this Uber executive trying to crush journalistic criticism?
I’m not at all surprised of course. I think things like this happen behind closed doors more often than we’d like to think, not this particular example. When there’s money, and there’s power, and there’s things to lose, and people have a sense of entitlement, and superiority, egotism, this bad stuff comes out of that. No surprise, but certainly it’s frustrating. It’s a reminder of how weak we are as humans, how susceptible we are to doing things that are stupid and destructive. These things often come out of cultures that are highly male. They often come out of cultures that are highly aggressive. Uber is both. Not surprised, but disappointed I guess.
Everybody is outraged at Uber, which sure rightly, but the real issues are bigger. They’re social issues. They have to do with gender. They have to do with trying to reconcile the messiness of the natural human self with the realities of the civilized world. That’s where the conversations really should be happening. No, it’s just a lot of righteous indignation, the stupid idiot who did that over at Uber. Just frustrated, disappointed and wondering why people aren’t identifying and talking about the real problem, the paradigmatic problems.
I agree with you there. I think fundamentally, when you look at it, there’s the disruptive technology aspect to the company, which really interests me. How can we do things better? How can we ride share, and potentially have fewer cars on the roads because people are sharing rides now and aren’t necessarily taking their own cars to work because they know they can just get an Uber service that much quicker and more efficiently than a cab. You have that aspect of the company, which I think is very admirable. Then this other thing, the drive to … I don’t know whether it’s the capitalistic drive, or just the drive to become bigger and better and do it all very quickly, feels very much like something out of the railroad barons of the 19th century, or this fist fight over money, territory, perception.
It feels like we’ve gotten all these great technology hands up, and at the same time, we’re still stuck with the same social problems that we had so many years ago. You’d think we’d be advancing on both fronts, but we’re really not.
One of the things that you mentioned is that the Uber service is admirable. I know that’s the popular wine about it, but I don’t think it’s admirable at all. I say that from the standpoint of maturity model, which is something that we’ve talked about a lot before. Once upon a time, there was the invention of a taxi. At some point, in a new city or a new place, the taxi was more lightly regulated. The taxi was more owner-operated. Over time, on top of this service, at the heart of it is a vehicle transporting a person from point A to point B. Now we have the government with their handout, and taking a lot of money monetizing that the best the government can. We have larger companies that have bought up, and consolidated, and dominated, and are taking lots of money to make profits for people who have little or nothing to do with the provision of the actual service,
I don’t see Uber as this great, wow, what a egalitarian thing. It’s just something that is at the earlier stage of maturity. I actually had a good example of this just this weekend. I was in Dallas, and staying at a hotel on the airport campus. I tried to get a taxi first. Lately, a lot of airports are banning Uber. Instead of trying to sort out whether Uber could even come on to the airport campus or not, or arrange a taxi for a one-mine, three-minute drive off the airport campus, and it was $26. I said no, I’m not going to pay that. Then I went to Uber, and Uber could be on the airport. I got the estimate from Uber, and it was $34. There’s a newer service, as people try and catch up called Lyft. I went on Lyft. For Lyft, it was $5. Already, Uber is becoming homogenized with taxi service, at least in this one example, and I’m sure in others is getting more fees, more restrictions, more rules, more illogical big corporate bull shit on top of it.
There’s another company in the maturity model that say hey, now we’re the ones with very little overhead, and the driver will come. We appreciate the fact that Uber seems more egalitarian, is less expensive in some cases, is more convenient in many cases, but there’s nothing idealistic about it. It’s just a maturity model. The jackals who are running that company as we see from the way that they’re behaving over the last week or so, they’re looking to crank as much cash out of that as possible, and it’s not if, it’s when Uber is as bad or worst than taxis. Again, it’s just a far bigger problem.
Yeah, that’s a good take on it. From Uber, I want to move on to one of my favorite topics, which is e-books and print books. I have a large collection of print books having come from a time when collecting books of all shapes and sizes was the thing to do, especially if you were into design or science fiction, both of which I’m into, and before the book even came along. I saw an interesting headline that e-books are on their way, finally to surpassing the printed books. This isn’t tomorrow, but in 2018, the way the e-book growth is happening that it’s going to supplant print as the most popular format for readers. I get that. I’ve seen how powerful the Kindle can be, and certainly you don’t want to be carting around a whole stack of books all the time especially if you’re traveling.
It does make me a little bit sad because there is a physical relation that you have with a printed page, which I really feel is lost in the e-book. While I appreciate that it’s so much more convenient, and you can carry a gigantic library basically in your pocket, I think in the long term, something is lost in the translation there. What’s your take on e-books versus print Dirk?
A couple of things: First of all, for my own personal use, what I have found is that I’ll buy novels as e-books and nonfiction as physical books. When it’s not for leisure, when it’s for a thinking purpose, I go for the more high-fidelity means of communication. The convenience of the e-book is great when it’s not something that’s important to me in a certain way, but when it is, when my mind, and body and self need to be engaged in ways that I think matter and are meaningful, then it’s always still a physical book. I don’t see that changing. To the bigger point, sometime within the last month, I was sent a link to an article from Louis Rosenfeld who has a book publishing company, publishes both normal and e-books.
This article was very interesting in going over the history of the e-book, and showing a couple things. First of all, the growth has totally flattened. Whereas five, or I don’t know the number, but years ago, people were saying oh yeah, the physical book, it’s done. It’s not if, it’s when. That doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s been a real flattening there. The other thing that the article pointed out, which was very interesting was that in many leading countries, e-book adoption is near zero. The one I’m remembering off the top of my head that’s not the only one was Germany. The proportion of e-books to physical books was very, very tiny. I actually think the thesis in which you read may be flawed, may not have full information.
While e-books will continue to grow, particularly in certain formats, to my way of thinking all of the data indicates that it’s a matter of having more types of media, more ways to consume the media, as opposed to one form replacing the other.
I think the predictive veracity of this particular article may not be the greatest, but it was Price Waterhouse Cooper’s set of analysts, who predicted in 2018 that we’d get the e-book being the dominant format, although, it’s worth noting that people have been broadcasting that particular type of prediction for a long time. Sooner or later, I suppose it’s bound to happen. Who knows, 2018, might be the year.
I think it’s going to require more technology. For me to go from physical to digital voluntarily with books, it’s going to take a huge difference in the tech stack. Let me give you an example. I recently bought a book on great maps in the history of the world. Looking at that map is just a really important watermark as you go through the progress of western civilization. For me to be even open to buying that in a digital format, I would need to have a computing environment like Minority Report. I would need to have that thing be able to get it massively on a screen on the wall, or virtually projected even beyond what’s on my 30-inch monitor here. The way I want to consume that is very specific and very high-fidelity.
For those kinds of use cases, there’s a huge gap that is yet to be traversed, and I don’t see that technology existing in 2018, at least at an available consumer level, and probably not until much farther along than that.
That’s an interesting use case. We run into those all the time with design books. You have these giant information graphics that are high-fidelity, and you really want to enjoy them in that print format. I understand that desire to do that. For myself, the user experience for books like that is something I love, so I’m not likely to give that up soon either.
The other thing, I haven’t done research into this space, but people, based on their environments, or based on the context of their environment or the context of their behavior, people set mental models for how they function, and how they think and how they move. With the e-books, it’s putting it in with a tablet, or on your computer, or in a context where you’re used to doing other different things. One of the things, and we don’t hear much about it now, but over the next years, may be more towards the end of that, we’re going to start to hear a lot more talk about the relationship between your physical, whether you’re standing, whether you’re sitting, whether you’re moving, as well as the room and environment you’re in and surrounded by, as well as the sort of thing you’re interacting with being crucial to maximizing your creative thinking, or maximizing your analytical thinking, or maximizing your ability to concentrate.
Right now, that stuff is just largely voodoo, but it goes into this very well, because with the e-books, getting the book on this other technology device that we use in these other contexts and other ways, I strongly suspect in fact, we have frames, we have mental models subconsciously in how we’re behaving and how we’re able to interact with it that are limited by virtue of the fact, that it’s falling into the same morass as our email or our spreadsheets and all these other different things.
Yeah, I think I agree with your thesis there, and that’s definitely something worth digging into more I think. Our final news item of the day is about the very popular topic of net neutrality. About a week and a half ago, President Obama weighed into that argument in support of net neutrality, so that in theory, there’s equal playing fields for people no matter what service they’re offering, whether you’re a big sass outfit, or you’re a small startup. What’s I think an interesting fallout of this is that on the opposite side of the aisle, you can’t just make a statement as president anymore. It has to be politicized. Immediately, you have a republican senator saying that net neutrality is Obamacare for the internet, which I thought was pretty funny, and obviously not based in fact.
I wonder is net neutrality going to be another red state/blue state political fight, or is it going to break down along those lines like so many other things in our culture these days? What do you think?
I think signs are that it will degenerate into a red state/blue state sort of thing. Net neutrality is important. If it goes away, people are going to be really, really unhappy. Of course, they don’t realize it. Net neutrality is the wrong way to talk about it. We really need a branding expert on it to position it in a way that is more engaging and has people more aware of the perils of where this could go if it goes in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, I don’t think people are going to care or understand until it’s too late.
This year, on the show of The Walking Dead, at least for me as a Direct TV consumer, it’s been funny to watch it because during the commercial break, you’ll get a commercial that’s been bought on the show for The Walking Dead by AMC, the channel saying, satellite subscribers, you need to call this number or you will not get to see The Walking Dead ever again. It’s total propaganda, and fear tactics and hammering. Then the very next commercial is from Direct TV, and it says, subscribers, don’t be afraid by the AMC propaganda. We are trying to give you The Walking Dead at a fair and reasonable price. AMC is trying to jack the rates up. Don’t call that number, call this number. It’s crazy, but you know those numbers are getting hammered. Those numbers are being called a ton, probably the first one even more so because people might lose their precious one hour endorphin hit of watching The Walking Dead.
Net neutrality, people aren’t going to care about that until it starts to affect their services, and at that point it’s going to be too late. That’s when people will care, and that’s when it will go away from red state/blue state, which is how it’s hardening at the moment, into something where people are like, oh crap, this is a really bad deal for all of us.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with all the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to www.thedigitalife.com, that’s just one ‘l’ in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @Jonfollett, that’s J-o-n F-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at www.goinvo.com, that’s g-o-i-n-v-o.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter at @dknemeyer, that’s d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, or email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for Episode 79 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I am Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.