In a straight exchange for yesterday’s guest blog by Andrew Knighton, I wrote one for him. It’s here.
I’m afraid today is largely filled with writing and vocabulary jigsaw puzzles of a very different kind. I have to go and write about the operational challenges of digital services, extended value chains and big data analytics for work. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff, especially when you start getting into debates on who owns customer data (i.e. information about you, the consumer) – is it yours, or the company’s that collected it? Who has the right to access it or use it? Would you rather companies marketed every kind of product at you, or analyse what you’re interested in and make creepily accurate guesses about the things you might like? Where’s the line between personalisation of service, and corporate stalking? Some of the things they can extrapolate from apparently trivial information are quite worrying. And believe me, the phone companies are only just catching up. If there’s anyone that really, REALLY knows you, it’s your bank.
Just occasionally, the things I learn at work worry me.
According to Ben Macintyre of The Times, using an e-reader is changing the way books are written. The device not only collects data on which books you read and how often – it also measures how fast you read them, which bits you reread and which bits you highlight to share. This data is then fed back to the publishing houses who use it to decide what to publish next. It can also be shared with the writers to either customise their online publications or inform their future writing. The relationship between reader and writer just got closer.
With my writing hat on, this is great news. More detailed feedback means more precise editing and writing development, which means the work is more likely to be a success. (In theory – frankly, with the number of people reading 50 Shades at the moment, who knows what drives reading choice?)
With my telecoms hat on, this is par for the course. Big Data Analytics is a very hot buzzword in the industry at the moment – drilling deeper and deeper into customer behaviour to fully customize products and services, predict desire, and so on. Everyone who has anything to do with mobile devices is currently scrambling to catch up with BDA, and this is just an example of a sector doing it well.
With my reader hat on, I’m less sure. I don’t actually own an e-reader but if I did, the thought of it measuring my eye speed is instinctively uncomfortable. It’s watching me. Isaac Asimov would have a field day. On the flip side, if it leads to more books that I like… see, it’s a tough one.
Civil liberties groups have complained that amassing information about reader behaviour is an invasion of privacy, another way for digital businesses to garner valuable information…The advent of a machine that logs your tastes while expanding your mind is another way to improve books and sell more of them to people who might actually finish them.
This blog post comes to you from a telecoms conference in Berlin. I won’t bore you with the conference proceedings – partly because this is a blog about writing, not transport networks for mobile operators, and partly because I’m not paying much attention myself – but I do want to share something that happened yesterday.
We had a little field trip after the morning speeches to a research lab where they’re playing with remote activation. They demo’d a couple of projects which were pretty cool. For example, the subject with a smartphone that had the test app installed left the ‘office’ (designated by an RFID tag) and the heater at their ‘home’ (other side of the lab, also designated by an RFID tag) turned on to make sure the house was the optimal temperature when they arrived. When they left ‘home’ to go back to the ‘office’, having left a light on, a text was sent to their phone asking if they wanted to turn the light off remotely.
It prompted a debate which I’ve heard before and find very interesting. Phones can be super-personalised to an owner’s lifestyle and interests. You can receive texts on the sports you like, or the TV programme you follow. Soon your phone will be able to control bits of your house remotely, according to your geographical position based on the GPS in your phone. But how much personalisation is too much? At what point does it become creepy? At what point does your phone know more about you than you do? Losing your phone at the moment is a serious inconvenience. If it controls bits of your house or car, the problem is magnified. And the question is getting less and less theoretical – there are places in the world where all new cars or buildings need to have certain next-gen tech built in as standard. Places in the UAE are already rolling out ‘smart cities’ – automated utility readings, smart healthcare, smart transport control systems, etc etc.
I’m pretty sure there are one or two people reading this who will disagree with me, and say the advances make things more convenient, or safer, or more economical, and I’m sure they are right. I’m not intrinsically against technological development – if I were I’d be in the wrong market – but to quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:
Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Luckily, if some of my delegates are anything to go by, this question of ‘how far is too far?’ does occasionally get asked. Besides, in a free market, theoretically something that is too invasive for people’s tastes won’t sell. And for some of the stuff, especially the advances in smart healthcare, it’s all good. But it’s a balancing act that needs to be kept in mind.
This is going to be a brief departure from the world of literature, prompted by the adverts currently running for the Samsung Galaxy Note – ‘ the best of a smartphone and a tablet’. Now, I haven’t tried the device myself but I’m willing to bet a fair amount that, whilst it may be great at tablet stuff, games, music, video and the like, it will be pretty rubbish at actually making calls. You may have noticed that phones’ ability to act as, well, phones has declined pretty dramatically over the last few years. There’s two very understandable reasons for this.
The first is a question of money. Not that many years ago, voice made up 90% of telephony traffic. Now it makes up 3%. But the actual volume of voice traffic hasn’t changed at all. What has changed is the explosion of data. Data is relatively expensive for the operators to run, but it’s also where they claw back their money from the customer and attract new customers, so that’s where their focus has been for the last few years. Handsets have been all about data, and voice has suffered as a result. My super-duper HTC smartphone will let me write a book, watch YouTube or play a game of chess during my commute, but I can’t call my mum and expect to hear more than one word in five.
The second reason is a question of technology. In order to handle this data explosion, the operators are (slowly) upgrading their networks to data-specific tech called LTE, or Long Term Evolution. Yeah, I know, it’s a crap acronym. But there’s been a bit of an oversight. LTE is perfect for handling data, but it isn’t configured to carry voice traffic at all. Operators are already starting to roll out these new LTE networks without a solution for VOLTE (Voice Over LTE) in place, which means either that they’re running the voice traffic over a system not designed for it (leading to poor quality) or the voice traffic is falling back on the older technology (which hasn’t been updated).
Obviously that’s a massively simplified version, and I’m sure people will have counter arguments or more detailed corrections. But that, in a nutshell, is how Angry Birds killed the telephone call.
Last weekend I had an interesting chat with my uncle on the impact of medium on the creative process. Coming from an older generation, he said that he can’t create on computer – he can only edit. The actual creating has to take place on paper. I am in the lucky generation where computers became ubiquitous early enough that they are natural, but late enough that so’s paper. I found it quite interesting that the medium impacts his thought processes to an extent that some of them don’t function, because for me the creative process on paper and computer is exactly the same (although computer is neater, since you can’t see the places where I’ve scribbled).
Taking that progression to the next generation, will those for whom computers have always been around find paper impossible to create on? Nearly everyone’s heard a story about the baby of a friend of a friend who was seen trying to zoom on a TV, or even the wallpaper, as if it were a smartphone. Learned behaviour and environment kicks in earlier than we think.
Maybe it’s just a fear of change, but I’d be sad to think that writing on paper is dying out. I can’t really justify that – it’s simply that I enjoy it for its own sake. Similarly, my issue with Kindles and their kind. I travel a lot with work, so it would make sense for me to have one – simultaneously cutting down on baggage weight whilst letting me take tons more reading material. Yet, despite the utility, I remain obstinately against them. I like the feel of a paper book, and dread the day when they stop being printed. Ebooks are cheaper, more environment friendly, more portable, etc etc – I acknowledge the long list of reasons why they might be considered superior – but they aren’t beautiful. Despite just about being a child of the technological age, and wholly at ease with writing electronically, I remain addicted to reading paper.
I work in telecoms (the obvious home for classicists) and was recently at the Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona, where the latest and greatest developments were being demonstrated. My personal favourites were the waterproof paper and the laser keyboard, but there was a lot of noise around the trend of AR – Augmented Reality.
This means a ton of different things, but mostly overlaying what you see on a screen with additional information. Currently you can look at a street through your camera phone and get info on the buildings (like ‘this is a restaurant, here’s the menu, here’s the number to call for reservations’). I spoke to someone at Ford who was talking about HUDs on cars combined with AR, and that by 2020 he expected to see an AR-HUD on most car windscreens showing satnav on the road, minimum stopping distances from the car ahead (and what speed that car is travelling at), speed camera warnings, turn-off warnings, etc etc.
This all sounds pretty cool (although I’d have thought that much white noise on the windscreen might be a bit dangerous? But I’m not a driver so not confident of my ground there), but it did slightly leave me wondering – are we advancing the technology because there’s a demand for it, or because we can?
It’s the same thing that the tablet threw up. Even the phone operators didn’t know what it was for – one of the most popular speeches I ever put together was a bunch of people who use tablets in their businesses, because that let the operators hear where their product fit in the market. Mental. They just made it because Apple did, and people bought them.
Why did people buy them? This got asked in the conference as well. One of the delegates, who had just got one, replied with ‘it’s the nicest thing you don’t need’. Do we really want this stuff? Or do we buy it because they tell us we want it, and it’s shiny?
I don’t have a tablet. I have played with one at various events and decided that it is ultimately fairly pointless. My phone, laptop and TV will do each task better. But everyone who does have one seems to adore them. So – and I’m genuinely curious about this – what is it about advanced technology in general, and tablets in particular, that is so attractive?