Stories, moments, people and ideas of interest from within the worlds of innovation and design, spotted and written about by Helen Walters, design writer, editor, and ideas editor at TED. Attitude, errors and opinions obviously all the writer's own.
Ask me anything
December 11, 2012
"Do you really want to use all your concrete and steel to build parking lots? It seems pretty stupid."
Google’s Larry Page steps into the one-on-one CEO exclusive interview ring, in the wake of Tim Cook’s bout with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Tyrangiel. Miguel Helft’s interview is far-reaching, and while it’s impossible to imagine that the chief of a public company will say anything controversial on the record, there are some interesting insights into the company’s culture and management, including Page’s comment above, related to their focus on developing driverless cars, which reflects a breadth of curiosity and interest one might not attach to an advertising company. The whole interview is well worth a read; here are some of the quotes that stuck out for me:
On internal culture/talent: “We want to do things that will motivate the most amazing people in the world to want to work on them.” Google’s focus on internal talent is pretty legendary. The question that this comment sparked for me, however, is “not on those who actually want to use the products?”
On interoperability and playing nicely with others (especially pertinent in the wake of the Twitter/Instagram bust-up): “I think it would be nice if everybody would get along better and the users didn’t suffer as a result of other people’s activities.”
Echoing my colleagues’ theory of the Innovation Ambition Matrix, Page outlines Google’s commitment of 70% of efforts to incremental innovation, 20% to adjacent projects, and 10% to new-to-the-world ideas. It’s a simple enough theory that is nonetheless super hard to pull off. As he puts it, “it’s actually hard to get people to work on stuff that’s really ambitious. It’s easier to get people working on incremental things.”
On the importance and value of iteration: “If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, “It’s not doing what I think it should do.” We say, “Well, yeah. It just launched today.”
On the fact that he and his team aren’t even close to done yet: “I have a deep feeling that we are not even close to where we should be.” Well then.
Hands up if you find this Amazon commercial patronizing and stupid in about equal measure. They kind of had me until the shot where the woman is brushing her teeth while reading her Kindle, but then they lost me entirely. I mean, you can’t brush your teeth while holding a printed book? I beg to differ. Regardless, it’s a stupid thing to do anyway.
But then the whole tone suddenly got all sorts of braggy, as Amazon begins to compare its gizmos to iconic moments in the world’s history (“connecting your mouse to the front door” is the equivalent of the moon landing on what world, exactly? “Creating the Kindle” was the company’s four-minute mile? Do go on. What was your “I have a dream” speech? Was that when you started to provide web services for other companies? Or when exactly did you stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Don’t tell me. That must have been when you bought Zappos. Oh please. And to be clear, I do think those introductions are amazing, but the comparisons strike me as tin-eared, irrelevant and make Amazon seem like a company that can’t look past its own navel.)
But then, it gets even better, when the soft-toned, arch but utterly reassuring narrator* reminds us that what once seemed wildly impractical is now completely normal (actually a good point) but then adds, “And normal just begs to be messed with.” Is that meant to reassure us that Amazon ain’t done innovating yet? Because while I’m sure that’s absolutely true, I find this promise entirely unnerving and borderline fascistic.
* Note to tech companies: if you ALL use the same style of plinkety plonkety music and soothing style of voiceover in your advertisements, you all begin to blend into one. It worked for Apple eons ago. Change. Things. Up.
"When our UX is compared to the unexpected competitor Apple’s iPhone, the difference is truly that of Heaven and Earth. It’s a crisis of design."
— All Things D has a copy of an internal Samsung memo that contains frank opinion from JK Shin, Samsung’s head of mobile communications. The quote above is just the start. Isn’t it fascinating to see the weight being placed on design by these huge technology bigwigs? Samsung has actually done a pretty good job of supporting design in the past decade or so. Yet in what could yet prove to be a classic example of companies failing to notice competition under their nose, it still looks like it was blindsided by a company willing to play by different rules as it was hellbent on monitoring what Nokia was up to. Fascinating.
"People who are in the younger generation, millennials, are getting completely screwed. They’re basically being turned into something like indentured servants where they have to pay off their college loans. Bush rewrote the bankruptcy laws in 2005 to make it impossible to get out of college debt even if you go personally bankrupt."
Wonderful, sparky conversation between technology investor and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel and Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt as part of the Fortune Brainstorm Tech event taking place in Aspen. Ranging across topics, from the true impact of technology innovation to the influence of government on innovation and growth, the pair take on some thorny topics of our time. I did like the acknowledgement, forced by Thiel, that while social media played a role in the Arab Spring uprisings, the catalysts were really more fundamental and less prosaic. Thiel: “The fundamental driver for that was the food prices went up 50 percent and people were going to starve and I think it’s smug and complacent to pretend that it was anything other than that.” Well said.
I don’t have kids, so haven’t yet formed an opinion on how much technology is too much for their small souls to endure. But it’s clear from this article (and my own entirely unscientific observations) that little tykes are entirely confident and happy to use technology as a means to satisfy their whims for entertainment. Where Apps Become Child’s Play takes a look at Fisher Price’s Apple store-like research lab in East Aurora, N.Y., described in terms that sound I think unintentionally dystopian. “Instead of adults and teenagers, there are infants staring into computer screens, and parents and toddlers are passing iPads back and forth.” Brr.
But this was also interesting: the “pass-back factor,” meaning that these days iPhones and iPads have the hand-me-down factor that checkered dungarees or ill-fitting skirts had in days of old. Well, I know which I’d rather have had, even with a broken screen on the second-hand device. (For the record, I think this is quite a beautiful effect, though I do accept it might of course be totally inappropriate for small ones. As I say, I’m no parent…)
The always-excellent Clay Shirky closed out this year’s TEDGlobal (and with it, this unexpectedly monumental wrap-up of the conference.) He chose to focus on the expansion of the media with a message that reassured us that all the hubbub is to be expected. "More media always means more argument,” he said firmly. “That’s what happens when media space expands.” Then he focused on the open source movement to show how those on the edges fly the standard for upcoming innovation. Humor, too. “Look around the edges and see people experimenting with the political ramifications of the system,” he said, recounting how someone uploaded a tool for detecting naturally occurring haiku in State Department prose after Wikileaks. Yet there’s an important disconnect for us all to contemplate. As he put it: “The people experimenting don’t have legislative power. The people with legislative power are not experimenting with participation.” This is a problem we should all consider a little more deeply, even as I attempt to recover from writing nearly 27,000 words over the course of four days.
"The internet is a transcendent idea. It is unequivocally not something a squirrel could chew on."
— Haven’t you always slightly wondered how the Internet, you know, actually works? (Horrible confession to make in public, given that you probably all have a deep understanding of everything to do with it. I’m asking that for a friend, obviously.) Thankfully, Andrew Blum can clearly be my friend’s best friend, because he devoted the past few years of his life to figuring out how the system on which we base so much of our lives actually works after his cable guy told him that a squirrel had chewed through his home Internet. His journey took him to huge, dark data centers and to beaches in Portugal to watch a pirate climb out of the sea with a wire between their teeth. (That last bit might be an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Read Andrew’s book, Tubes, and read my ineffectual live blog of the talk, which has some great pictures of said pirate.
"Facebook and Google claim they are friends of the mouse, but sometimes we see they are dating the cats."
— Michael Anti is a reporter and a blogger who showed up at TEDGlobal to give us all a snapshot of how China really is. For one thing, it’s complicated. “You can’t tell a one-size story,” he said. You’d think we’d have understood this by now, but still we really do love to generalize and fail to contemplate that reality might be nuanced or different from our hardwired assumptions. Anti carefully laid out a Chinese reality of non-stop cat and mouse games between authorities and netizens. Given that there are 500 million internet users in China, this is quite a game, and one with worldwide ramifications for all, including western digital poster children.
After I saw Marc Goodman rehearse his talk at TEDGlobal, I quipped that his talk was going to scare the bejeesus out of all of us. Then when I saw him shortly afterwards, he explained to me that his point was less that we should all be scared witless, and more that we should understand the potential of technology to help citizens in a quest to live in a safe society. I stand by the fact that many of the stories are terrifying for mere mortals who don’t live in a crime-fighting world (in particular, the stories of the Mumbai terrorists using technology to identify victims and figure out whether to assassinate them or not was horr-if-ying.) But it was a fantastically charming and enlightening talk, and I was particularly interested that Goodman, along with Vicki Arroyo earlier in the week, hit the same theme that a topic (in this case public safety) is too important to leave to professionals. Trust in experts really has ebbed at an astonishing rate: now all that’s needed is for the amateurs to have faith to follow through their crazy ideas and somehow bring about the systemic change we all so desperately need to see.
This video shows what’s possible with blending physical and digital. Still awkward, yes, but filled with potential. Matt Mills and Tamara Roukaerts of Aurasma demonstrated other examples at the recent TEDGlobal conference. I’m always a little suspicious of our apparent urge to map technology onto everything we do, but it was super impressive. Read Ben Lillie’s review of the demo.
Shyam Sankar, a data intelligence agent working at Palantir, gave a great talk at TEDGlobal which took on the topic of human computer symbiosis. He cited J.C.R. Licklider‘s notion of intelligence augmentation, and wanting humans and machines to cooperate, not battle each other unto the death. In Human-Machine Synergy, Ben Lillie captured Sankar’s energetic talk, while in The Story Behind The Slides, I talked to Collin Roe-Raymond, lead graphic designer at Palantir, about the process of putting together a really beautiful presentation.
"Now that Microsoft is building and selling its own tablet, the Surface, most people think it’s copying Apple," writes Jay Yarow over at Business Insider. He continues: “While that’s an easy story line to follow, it actually looks like Microsoft is copying Google and its “Nexus” game plan.” Yarow proceeds to explain more, with sensible advice for not jumping on the latest shiniest bandwagon.
[Story via Rob Hof. Image of the Surface tablet c/o Microsoft]
"So much for Siri on your dashboard; it’s Rosie time, and your robot-butler dreams are about to come true."
— In Way Beyond Facebook: Welcome to the Hybrid Age, author Parag Khanna briefly details his idea of the emergence of what he calls the “hybrid economy” and outlines the need for us all boost our TQ, our “technology quotient.” “Start saving as much for physical enhancement as for education and retirement,” writes Khanna, whose book on the topic is out now. “Get familiar with virtual currencies. Invest in a persuasive avatar, even, to represent you online. And welcome to the Hybrid Age.” Quick read, worth the effort.
The title of this Wired story pretty much sums it up: Honda Fit EV Is the Most Efficient New Car in the US. Set to get a mile-per-gallon equivalency rating of 118 MPGe, the battery supposedly lasts 82 miles, while Honda reports it can be recharged in less than three hours. I always worry about how we come about the electricity that powers our exhaust-free cars, but these are pretty impressive stats, and moving away from the gas pump is certainly mission critical. Science/environment writer Christopher Mims definitely got all excited at the introduction, writing giddily: “This could be the Model-T of the electric age.”