Episode Eighty Two: The Next Big Thing In Drugs; As If You Needed Another NYT Opinion; Experience This; The Value Of The Thing

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I write later than usual today, for reasons that will probably become clear next week. I didn’t do too well yesterday: in the house, on my own, kind of passively-aggressively playing Resogun and shooting all the things with the cat beside me. It’s one of the things that I’ve learned – and it’s only taken 34 years, so I encourage you to try and do it faster than that if you’re able – that if I’m on my own and I’m not engaged in some sort of speech act, then my brain kind of eats itself in a recursive way and before I know it I’m in a genuinely depressive funk that is incredibly hard to get out of.

In a conversation with my therapist today, I said that it felt rather like I couldn’t stop my brain moving – that it was always at the very least idling, and if I didn’t find a way to turn it outward, onto and into the world, then it would look inward and not be particularly merciful about what it consumed. Now that I think about it, that’s not a particularly nice metaphor or way to think about such an integral part of yourself, but I guess that’s the relationship I have with the bit of my self that’s reflexive enough to consider itself. When it works and I can point it outside, it’s great. But when it’s pointed into itself, it’s a terrible thing.

It is going to rain this weekend in Portland.

1.0 The Next Big Thing In Drugs

This morning via Quartz, news that Samsung the conglomerate (they make a lot of things – from electronics to ships to white goods to medical equipment and sell a lot of services from construction to advertising to financial services) is making a USD $2bn investment into biopharmaceuticals[1] (things like vaccines and viral therapies, instead of chemical-based treatments). Two things.

One: the article is hilarious because it states that “The company will start by copying Enbrel (an arthritis therapy by Amgen Inc.) and Remicade (Johnson & Johnson’s autoimmune disease treatment) in the next couple of years.” of which: wow, Samsung, way to go to retain your image of innovation and not merely copying things and bringing them to market slightly more cheaply.

Two: analysts are excited that because Samsung has wearables (or, rather, is trying to make them and failing spectacularly) it has a “health ecosystem” (see: S Health[2]) it will be able to do an end-run around the existing pharma companies that conversely do not have a “health ecosystem” – ie apps and internet connected things. Never mind that the first-mover advantage in this case appears, in my mind, to be virtually nought because it’s not actually bringing any benefit to people and the utility being delivered is practically zero, the idea that Samsung will be able to produce a clear, consistent user experience in the realm of health is amusing. We’re not talking about TVs or even smart TVs here. We’re talking about medical diagnostic information (the examples are *always* of diabetics taking their blood glucose levels) for which regulation is going to clamp down on like a lead balloon. I get that the pharma/medical device companies are conservative in what they produce and what they think the market will bear in terms of complexity and functionality, and that there’s also a *very* different go-to-market strategy, but to think that the company that *thinks* it has won the smartphone war because of innovative functionality and not, say, extremely well-executed marketing and price sensitivity, will do so in the medical devices arena is… well, I am not literally snorting things out of my nose.

[1] http://qz.com/209603/samsung-is-becoming-a-drug-firm-and-the-drug-firms-should-watch-out/
[2] http://www.samsung.com/global/microsite/galaxys4/lifecare.html#page=shealth

2.0 As If You Needed Another New York Times Opinion

Nick Sweeney did a good job, I think, of summing up[1] the New York Times’ leaked digital innovation report in a pithy statement as to the paper of record’s future being “like that of a collapsed star: a small dense core of journalism with a large gravitational field of kittens.”

If I have learned anything, it’s that the only organisations that really change are the ones that want to change. Sure, there are tea-leaf readings that indicate that the involvement of the current publisher’s son and heir to the throne are positive portents for the future, but I suspect one of the best things about the report is that a whole bunch of us would just like to get our hands on it and kind of do a search-and-replace and hand it off to our collective management and leadership teams.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read all ninety pages of the report (spoilers: I haven’t even read *any* pages of the report) but it turns out that you can’t fucking click on *anything* on the internet today without some sort of reckon about it. So this isn’t really my reaction the report as such as it is these types of reports in general.

By all accounts, what’s in it is eminently sensible and, depressingly, really obvious. Some of it is, inversely, obviously depressing: for example, the paucity of useful and relevant metadata as to their treasure trove of genuinely useful content that an easily-conceived audience would care about. No, what’s depressing is that a lot of what needs to be done is clear, and would have been clear, quite a while ago. That it hasn’t been done is a tragedy and exactly the sort of thing that leads people to hang their heads in exasperation and, ultimately, quit their jobs.

Because the New York Times is that example of something more than an organisation and more of an institution. My brother’s been writing up a set of notes on the BBC and its approach to digital commissioning[3]. One of the things to understand about the BBC if you’re not British is exactly how much of an institution it is, and, for a certain set of people, the sort of civic values and kind-of patriotism that it inspires. And, I think, there is a stage in an organisation’s evolution where it does sort of ossify into an institution that is designed to do certain things well and without, how shall I put it, *disruptive* change, it will continue to do those things. Unless there’s a stupendously abrasive almost Jobsian petulance in place at the top, it doesn’t matter if you have Reithian values of Nation Speaking Unto Nation or Entertain, Inform and Educate, or The Paper Of Record that speak to a medium-agnostic mission, you end up with an institution that warps *around* the medium instead of the content.

I would say that perhaps Disney were one of the organisations that, in a way, got close to medium agnosticism, because clearly what they perceive as their value is, on some level, the IP in their characters and settings (Mickey, for example) and not necessarily just in a particular medium’s expression (Fantasia, for example). You can kind of see this in their current strategy of buying up universes capable of multiple forms of expression like Star Wars and the Marvel universe, and no, I’m not going to get distracted and fall down the transmedia rabbit hole.

But even Disney can’t handle it quite right because arguably they haven’t really figured out good interactivity yet, either. Of all of the entertainment or media companies, they are the most agnostic in all media *apart* from the binary. Theme parks, toys, movies, tv shows, music, you all know what I mean. But has one ever moved from digital to the other? Not yet.

This is what perhaps has been disappointing and depressing to me about the state of the art of interactive entertainment. It’s that we are *still* so early on in the stages of networked interactive media that one of our best examples is instead Angry Birds, something that appeared from nowhere and may well disappear to nowhere in about as much time as it exploded. We’ve seen what happened to Farmville and how quickly things can grow, but what we haven’t seen is an example of a sustainable, digital-first/medium-agnostic entertainment property. I’d argue that we *could* have, had our media conglomerates looked at what was working online and moved it, but I look at stuff like the acquisition of Maker Studios and that’s just TV-but-different, not something that’s net or binary native.

In a way, that’s what I was interested in with what Vox Media have been doing: that they went net native first and they appear to be doing okay by it in terms of most of their verticals, but I’m still not entirely persuaded by Vox-the-news-publication as it feels like it hasn’t quite hit home yet.

I have never, ever, really been persuaded by change-from-within because the examples always seem to be outliers. Or, rather, they rely disproportionately upon mercurial leadership who are quite happy to hold what are called strong-yet-weak opinions. Ones that are hard and fast until they require changing at which point *everything changes*. I mean, maybe Nokia, who famously went from rubber to telecoms and then squandered that with some quite impressive hubris might have another wind with its internet-of-things strategy. Or maybe not. But this is the paradox: how do you build a framework that can create great work and is disciplined and strict in that way, but also flexible enough to spin at a moment’s notice?

Part of the trick, of course, is that you don’t need to spin at a moment’s notice. It’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but if you know the right things at the right time, these changes don’t sneak up on you. You can act upon them: you can ditch the floppy drives and go USB before the floppy drives are ditched. Everyone else will be left scrambling – sometimes quickly, sometimes with less urgency – but it’s not like it’s impossible to get ahead of the curve. Why, then, does it feel so hard and so difficult to slaughter just a few sacred cows?

There’s one irritating thing that I wanted to get off my chest and that was about the whole misunderstanding around Snow Fall. You know what? There *are* Snowfall Builders. They’re called people, and they use tools like their heads to make New Things out of a unique combination of the technologies of the web and journalism. I hate for this to be an issue of terminology, but the thing is if you’re going to have a conversation about Snow Fall you kind of need some sort of agreement as to what we *mean* by Snow Fall. Do we mean the particular format of vertical scrolling somewhat parallax storytellingwith progressively loading and rendering text and video? Or do we mean “unique thing on the internet” where content and presentation inform each other in a stupendously fluid medium?

Because to ask for a Snowfall Builder is to misunderstand one of the central properties of the web and digital media. Certainly there are *properties* of digital media, but some of those properties are more aligned the axis of flexibility as opposed to constraints. The thing about a web page is that there are *so many* things you can do with it purely *because* of the interactivity, as opposed to a passive medium like newsprint. You know what a Snowfall Builder is? Something that can understand a Turing Complete environment and emit instructions for that environment. That’s what a Snowfall Builder is.

But, I suspect, those asking for a Snowfall Builder want a templatised system that is a sort of Fancypants Microsoft Publisher for the Web where we can drag-and-drop content and you don’t need those weird developer and design type people and can we just go back to having journalism please.

No, you can’t have a Snowfall Builder because it’s like asking for a Golden Globes Award Winning TV Show Builder or a Best Movie Oscar Builder – it betrays a fundamental not-grokking-it of what made Snow Fall Snow Fall.

[1] http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/05/the-leaked-new-york-times-innovation-report-is-one-of-the-key-documents-of-this-media-age/
[2] http://nicksweeney.com/2014/05/16/tldr-horizon/
[3] http://mssv.net/2014/05/02/setting-the-scene-bbc-digital-commissioning-pt-1/

3.0 Experience This

So The Verge via Techcrunch reported that Airbnb have been testing offering experiences[1] of which I have a whole number of reckons! I’m not entirely sure how this fits into the sharing economy narrative. Techcrunch’s position is that this helps Airbnb expand into the wider service area of a hospitality brand and blah blah a new revenue stream from experience providers. The flipside of this all of course is that this just another way to monetise the hosts with whom Airbnb has a relationship with. For the min-maxxers who are working out where to buy property to extract optimum short rents this isn’t going to be interesting, but for the body of people for whom Airbnb is replacing lost salary or is becoming a supplement or alternative to employment that has disappeared or is disappearing, this is just another sign of the increasing corporatisation of the individual. I wonder how far this goes: does or will Airbnb encourage all of its hosts to have an interesting, valuable and unique service on offer in order to attract guests? Are you going to have to learn the local landmarks or a trick, in other words, for your rating to become high enough so that Airbnb has a chance to upsell a guest on a value-add that they can take a revenue mark out of? Or, are we destined in some sort of Douglas Adams-esque dystopian future to only ever travel to Airbnb managed properties and endure somewhat listless, lackadasical local tours in an exercise to just move more money around.

Finally, there’s a slip-up in the quote from the Airbnb spokesperson who said “We are always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences on Airbnb, we currently don’t have any updates to share.” – and it’s that usage of the phrase “meaningful experiences on Airbnb”. To what does an Airbnb apply? The website? The guest experience? I mean, this kind of feels a bit like Airbnb mixed with an entertain me-please TaskRabbit…

[1] http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/16/airbnb-experiences//

4.0 The Value Of The Thing

I caught a tweet from Verizon about their device trade-in program that I thought was a neat interaction. It’s a simple one, really: you can dial **VALUE from any phone, on any carrier, and Verizon will do some network magic to try to autodetect (presumably via something like IMEI) the manufacturer and model of your phone to give you a pseudo-realtime estimate of its tradein value. No messing around with dropdown menus to select Samsung and then another dropdown menu to pick which Samsung model phone you’ve got, just a simple phone interaction.

The logical conclusion of this, of course – and I’m not sure if something like Amazon Flow[2] does anything like this, but the idea of being able to point a camera at anything and being able to find out its current worth via a simple lookup on Amazon Marketplace or eBay is a bit… well, they don’t call it late-stage capitalism for no reason…

[1] http://www.verizonwireless.com/news/article/2014/04/smartphone-recycling-device-trade-in.html
[2] https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/flow-powered-by-amazon/id474664425?mt=8

It’s been a long week. I’m planning to be at O’Reilly Solid next week in San Francisco, so if you’re going to be around too, drop me a line. And thank you for all the notes – they’re much appreciated. Again, if you’re new, please do drop a line introducing yourself if you feel like it. I’m kind of intrigued as to where all my new subscribers are coming from…

Best,

Dan