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How middle class is the mobile web?

This morning I found a link to this interesting post on ‘The Mobile Web in Numbers’ in my Twitter stream and I decided to do a bit of maths. Among lot’s of interesting stats, the post starts with the following numbers:

5.9 billion is the estimated number of mobile subscriptions worldwide in 2011.
13% is the smartphone share of all mobile handsets in use worldwide.

This means, we are talking worldwide about 767 million smartphones opposed to nearly 6 billion mobile phones, and according to the post 75 million of them are Apple iPhones. Far less, for example, than the estimated 850 million users of Facebook. So here is my question: Are we making too much of a fuzz about it? Have we already ended up in a personalized bubble, when we assume everyone has an iPhone, Blackberry or Android device? Or will get one, just because most executives use them?


As you can see in this picture, my personalized bubble consists of no-smartphone users who bugged me a bit with being very proud of it, but then there was the Provence

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that the web is about to move from the computer to other devices, and digital information will soon be everywhere. However, I have two objections.

1: This takes a bit of time – we are not there yet, but we pretend to. Is the reason for this sheer marketing? Like everyone should feel in need of a new product? Read, for example, this sentence taken from a study of IBM : “Additionally, mobile sales grew dramatically, reaching 6.6%”. Is this number of 6.6% really one where we should use the word ‘dramatically’? Or is ‘dramatically’ used to suggest: ‘My dear, don’t miss this?’

On top, the tablet hype. We can count nearly 7 billion humans in the world, and among them we have 10.3 million tablet users in 2010 with an estimated 82.1 million tablet users expected in 2015. Well. Facebook is a country, but even in the Western world 10.3 million tablets are not even really a mega city yet. It’s clearly a device for an elite. Which takes us to objection two.

2: There is no doubt that the internet is on its way to leave the computer, but I am not sure if mobile usage will become the new norm anytime soon. It might be that often we just stress the use of these devices as normal, because we fight for the digital public to be acknowledged in the traditional public sphere. However, taking apps as well as tablets or smartphones as naturally given despite the actual numbers is about to become a problem. When we focus on them as if they are mainstream, we simply show that the digital divide is already there: it is happening in our heads, and we set ourselves as the new norm.

File under: #digitaldilemma or am I just a victim of a London underground which has no reception? You tell me.

Why 2012 will be the year of television

It started as a trick: in the summer of 2006 I came back from an extended stay to Berkeley. As part of me didn’t want to leave the XXL-mildness of California, I came up with the brilliant idea that I am not really back unless I expose myself again to German television. No sooner thought than done. The small black old school plastic box in my living room stayed switched off. I had stopped watching television. Recently I researched the future of television for an event of the association of private television VPRT, and learnt that this wasn’t really the case. It is more complicated. The truth is, I stopped using a television set, but I continued to watch.


Television will be even more beautiful after it has fallen out of the sky like Cupid’s arrow from Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in San Francisco

Television sets have been saved a bit by their slow replacement cycle. As analysts Spencer Wang of Credit Suisse said, people only buy a new television set every 7 years while they get a new smartphone every 2 years. However, 2012 will be the year that television will say hello to digitalisation. More and more channels and TV brands have now started to embrace it. They have woken up. Up till now most of them thought of the internet as nothing but a marketing place to promote their TV content. Now we are about to enter a new era and it becomes a distribution channel, too. Welcome to the post-cannibalisation-era!

Yet old media looks a bit nibbled off, and at least partly this is their own fault: they’ve waited to long. Here television has been in a lucky position. Its industry had the possibility to learn from the mistakes of others, mainly the unhappy music industry. Being worried about illegal copying, they denied to enter digital distribution and tried to lock themselves up in the fortress of DRMed CDs. Instead pushing themselves on the new medium with a generous gesture forward, Apple and Steve Jobs did their job. They did it very well, and also took away their control. Afraid of getting iApple-ed, the television industry has learnt their lesson: the safe bet against illegal copying is to make your content widely available, provide it with a realistic price and set up a very easy way to pay for; better even several ways.

Under attack by television-to-go

But as vertical expansion has been stuck in the head of executives, for TV the problems are already beside distribution. On the internet, finding content is the key. So who will be the television guide to find content online? Who will become Google for television? Besides clicker.com, several other companies try to give an answer, among them the social approach of the Berlin based Tweet.tv. In a world of information overload, the TV guide will be the meta-channel users need. Conceptually half portal, half search engine with social add-ons delivering an overview across all brands, friends and followers sounds quite perfect for a key position. Consequently, CBS made a clever move when they bought clicker.com earlier this year unlike television portals which simply dump all their content on their homepage. They just prove that they don’t understand the new medium – zapping already sucked in the real world, and on the internet more is everywhere, so less is more.

Finally there is television-to-go: the iPad and the Kindle Fire tablet have become something like the walkman of television, and Amazon as well as Apple’s iTunes is their content provider. And there is go-to-television: Google has developed the GoogleTV browser that will soon find its place on Sony’s, LG’s and Samsung’s sets. Plus Google’s YouTube has invested 100 million dollars in content production for its channels with Disney among the producers. Apple also approaches the TV set by making use of their creative perspective: Its patents show that they plan to develop a television you can shout and gesticulate at in order to make video editing easier and seamlessly sync all your devices, er, all your Apple devices, of course.

In short, when YouTube reinvents itself “as Internet’s answer to cable TV”as my colleague Janko Roettgers has put it, when digital companies start to produce tablet television devices, when TV sets come with a browser in order to display internet content, then the vertical integration of TV has started to push and shove. As the president of VPRT Doetz demonstrated at the event, an open discussion among private television has not only started started but is thought of as necessary. Surely some scepticism remains, but 2012 will be a decisive year for television. I might even buy one.

The gesture of technology

Um. When the French Philosopher Gilbert Simondon thought about technology in 1958, he wrote the following sentence: ‘Human reality resides in machines as human actions fixed and crystalized in functioning structures’. This leads to the following question: if technology is ‘human actions fixed’, can we say that there is something like a gesture of technology? And is this gesture specific to a certain type of technology in accordance to what is fixed? So: What is the gesture of digitalization?


Christopher Williams, Bläsing G 2000, 2010

Is society even more unjust than we think it is?


In this meeting room of Lloyds in London experts in risk meet and enjoy the view.

We all enjoy living in a society that is characterised by division of labour. As social beings, we might be worried that the gap between rich and poor widens, but we also believe that the difference in wages are not simply unjust. They are based on skills each individual offers to society.

Well, maybe not.

For when I understood the excerpt of Daniel Kahneman’s book chapter published today in the Observer correctly, that might not be the case. In it the Israeli-American psychologist analyses the illusion of skills and how results that deeply question our cultural routine and rules, are simply ignored by all of us. The example he uses is that of society’s best paid men, the financial traders and their predictions.

Some years ago I had an unusual opportunity to examine the illusion of financial skill up close. I had been invited to speak to a group of investment advisers in a firm that provided financial advice and other services to very wealthy clients. I asked for some data to prepare my presentation and was granted a small treasure: a spreadsheet summarising the investment outcomes of some 25 anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years. (…)

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them and whether the same advisers consistently achieved better returns for their clients year after year.

And the outcome?

The consistent correlations that would indicate differences in skill were not to be found. The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.

The news that their well rewarded skills were an illusion, their success was due mostly to chance, and algorithms would have done a better job, only shocked the self-esteem of these men briefly. Something set in Kahneman calls “cognitive illusion”. And if Kahneman is right, this is what we are all living in. File under #ideology2011. So who would you choose, bankers or algorithms?

Daniel Kahneman: When confidence blinds us to reason. From: Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking fast and slow, Penguin 2011

Can a list tell a story? Yes, it can. Look.

Thanks to search, lists have become ubiquitous. They are everywhere. Surely they have always been a cultural technique, but as the digital is spreading, they have became more and more important. Which is usually not seen as a good thing. Isn’t the list another sign of knowledge becoming shallow?

It is true, at first sight it doesn’t seem as if the list is a complex thing. In the past they have told us that there was just one position important on the list, and that is to be number one. Lists were there for ranking. Or even more simple, to register something. A shopping list. For sure, a list isn’t seen as a complex or even poetic technique. That might be a mistake.

At the moment Taryn Simon turns this prejudice upside down in her excellent art work ‘A Living Man Declared Dead And Other Chapters I-XVIII’, which should be looked at in the Tate Modern (or in the Neue Nationalgallerie in Berlin in September). I am still impressed with her multilayered approach of photography. She is reporting in a very journalistic way what this thing is, ‘life’, and what we do to each other while living – Simon has worked for the New York Times magazine before becoming an artist.

An artist she is. There are lists everywhere but the lists aren’t behaving. The stories her lists tell are grouped around families, orphans, concerned persons, political issues, individual cases and rabbits. Nepal girls that are thought to be the living goddess Kumari until they menstruate and become a normal person again. Two Brazilian feuding families. A huge Kenyan polygamy family. Ukraine orphans that are forced to leave the sheltered orphanage with 16 with the high probability of then being trafficked.

Simon tells all these stories by creating lists. She proves that lists are a much more complex format than we ever thought; for example, when suddenly in the middle of one list another story evolves – like the absent pictures of three children of a Kenyan doctor for fear of being kidnapped by the father.

Will lists ever become a highly regarded cultural technique? How are media changing the way we tell stories and narrations? And will I ever be able to escape the algorithms?

Sorry, but I have to ask myself that question for today I made an exception, and exchanged my extended living room, the British Library, with the Tate Modern. Usually, I am quite concentrated on my manuscript these days hiding from social contacts like a mole. I ended up noticing something which is very much about my book topic on how algorithms are changing our society. Obviously, I went outside but the mole came along. Well, I suppose we will both go and watch Barcelona vs. ManU then.

Public Opinion, 1922 to 2011

… we can steadily increase our real control over these (public) acts by insisting that all of them shall be plainly recorded and that their results should objectively measured. I should say, perhaps, that we can progressively hope to insist. For the working out of such standards and of such audits has only begun.

[Walter Lippmann 1922, Public Opinion, London, George Allen & Unwin, 314]

Reporting the war – when does transparency turn into blind fascination?

After I came home from the ICA yesterday where several political thinkers had spoken, I turned on the news while preparing dinner. The BBC reported on Libya, and I got deeply worried. I checked other news sides, but the tendency was the same. We are at war.

Listen to the following cut copy news paste: The Americans had launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from a Trafalgar Class submarine and Stormshadow missiles from Tornado GR4s. The fast jets flew 3,000 miles from RAF Marham and back making this the longest range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict. The operation was supported by VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as E3D Sentry and Sentinel surveillance aircraft. One large airbase alone is reported to have been hit with 40 bombs from an American stealth bomber. Maybe we are also at a sports competition.


Is it a Jeff Wall picture, or the war? – The New York Times isn’t sure.

What is reporting the war turning into being part of the war? When are we close, when are we too detailled? When does reporting turn into propaganda? The matériel battle that unfolded in front of my eyes made me feel uncomfortable. Angry. I turned to Twitter, and was relieved to find several people expressing the same worries.

Cameron said what we are doing is necessary, right and legal, and that the soldiers were the bravest of the brave. A retired general said that Lybia should be afraid. We are telling people in our news they should be afraid of us. The BBC broadcasted it. No, they didn’t comment.

Of course, Libya had pushed the horrible disasters in Japan from the top spot. And it pushed it away, because there is so much at stake. After… No. Besides Afghanistan and Irak, we are at yet another war. There is an UN solution. Gaddafi is fighting his own people. Are we hunting down a bad leader? Mohammad Nabbous, the face of Libyan citizen journalism, was killed in a firefight the night before.

Can there be a just war? Can bombs bring democracy? I debated with my friend A later on what is going on, before we went out. While I had the feeling, that we engage here for other reasons than civilians in danger, she is supportive for it. She said that we need to learn to take responsibility, and that this is a step. She answered my question, why Libya and not Syria or Jemen. This is a start, she said. We both agreed, however, this is no reason for this kind of reporting.

There is a difference between reporting the war, and being at war. Thank god, there have been reflective voices, the nice considerate live drawing of Patrick Blower at the Guardian, the excellent opinion piece of Andrew Rawnsly from The Observer, or this slide show of the NYTimes also showing the wounded. But in general, our reporting way to close. It propagates the war. It hurts.

When is a picture to good? Shall we make war look like a fantastic action thriller? Reporting the matériel battle is scrupulously precise. We need to be careful not to become too live, and too detailed. When does transparency turn into blind fascination? As journalists we are part of the war, and will always be. But this is awful.

This digital life: Mirror, mirror on the … Blackberry

Writing about the effect of digitalization on knowledge and how we all became experts via our new devices, I spent this morning researching the amazing medical apps from Epocrates to the Google Body browser. Body parts all over the place. Looking up from my British Library salad at lunch I suddenly face huge bared teeth in a camera picture across me. Person that is holding her teeth in front of my nose is excusing herself with her Blackberry. She said it has no mirror function, and she had something between her teeth, so she made a picture of them using the camera instead. Oh, this digital life.

Will my boss be a robot tomorrow?

This week when I went to Paris to teach a masterclass at the Science-Po School of Journalism, I watched French television. And I zapped. And then I watched German television. I shouldn’t have done this, but hindsight is easier than foresight.

While German television debated the female proportion at a talk show, Sarkozy faced a curated crowd representing ‘the French people’ on TF1 – among them a black female Professor of Economy, a young farmer with two kids, a female entrepreneur with four kids, a teacher who was formerly workless, and a male language student – note how the French slightly shift the stereotypes here?

Not so public German television at the talk show of Maybrit Illner. Now, I considered her to be one of the smarter people in dumb German TV, but what I saw simply made me angry. Yes, I have a problem with people talking nonsense, but I can stand dissension. Only that dissension means, that there are two sides. Two, like in: one, two.

Here, however, the way the debate was staged was clearly biased. Her crew had curated a bunch of conservative opinion leaders with a young inexperienced although brave sweetheart of The Green youth, and topped this with a stupid question: ‘Will my boss be a robot tomorrow?’ Women, of course. Same thing really, anyhow.

There was the conservative female Minister for Families (against), President of German Industry (against), a very eloquent publicist Brigitte Kelle (against), then the young female Green party member (for), and an actress (slightly for, but understood the other side as well). And there was, finally, the crowd clapping when it was said that females shouldn’t be preferred to males, and must feel the cold wind of a career, too.

How could it happen, that public German television staged a debate about the female proportion of executives without one? Eh?

None of these people have been treated with great politeness as an abnormality because of their gender – by males as well as females. None of these people ever had job interviews with chief executives that opened their generous talk with a technical discussion of cars. Their gender was never reason to be charmingly treated as an intruder. And none of them felt slightly weird being the only women among 18 male CEOs and editors-in-chief. You get it: you don’t belong here is what comes on top of the ‘cold wind’.

A debate on female proportion in management being used to whine about politics not caring enough about the female as a mother but only as an employee (for working females can’t be mothers, sure); a debate that is asking if the females lack enough will to make it, makes me angry.

Let’s have some fun! The official Talkshow Trailer:

As you can easily see in the comments on Maybrit Illner’s YouTube channel, this makes a lot of German men angry, too. This is biased, and structural sexism. It is also – excuse my French – utterly bullshit. Gender is, anyhow, not a female issue, but a human condition.

At least I am now sure of the following. As much as I wouldn’t like to live under the regime of Berlusconi, I am not going back to Germany. No way. Blame Maybrit Illner for it, or maybe a robot.

- Ist dein Boss morgen ‘ne Frau?
- Clay Shirky: A rant about women (recommended)
- Peter Preston: Gender, televesion & the politics of ageims – this is what other countries worry about)

To be a witness today, means to report


In Egypt, charging mobiles for the revolution.

What you see makes you hear better

We interrupt this serious blog for two serious things: aesthetics & trying.

This video, ‘I try’, is utterly non-spectacular but impresses with a charming trick. It might idle around a bit too long in the beginning, but from 0:50 on what you see makes you hear better. And being able to hear better makes you able to see more, like how the process enters the product. Yes. Hello concept. I always was very fond of this song by Public Lover aka Bruno Pronsato feat. Ninca Leece, and once I found the video, even more. Please connect computer to good speakers.

And then there is this: The second James Blake video, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ which is beautifully filmed by Alexander Brown, formerly at Goldsmiths College where James is now himself. The song is, of course, already amazing with the music slowly building up a dissonant cloud for you to hide in from your worries (if you can’t stand pathos, skip to 2.40). Yes, good speakers again, and must be watched in full screen mode, promise.

Oh. P says, I should add the following: if you wish by 1.12 they hadn’t styled James as a glossy pop icon and desperately wait for the Turner-ish blur to come back, you are not alone. If you wish to mess up his hair, too.

Led by technology #egypt #jan25

Watching Western media yesterday, the coverage of Egypt’s revolution was ruled by one question: the search for the leader. Isn’t it weird that we seem to rub our eyes in disbelief about the fact that obviously there can be political action without an agitator?

What we see down at Tharir square, however, is something new: We see people that fight to end the regime; they are revolting against a system, but they do not want to come into power. This revolution isn’t led by the opposition.

Now, I don’t think that technology is fully replacing the leader, but it might change what the political tasks are. Hence, our search for the leader seems to be old fashioned. It floats a bit out of position above Tharir square; above people’s heads that gather day after day impressively peaceful, facing the threat to get beaten up or even killed to protest for the end of a regime, above a mass that organises food and water, medicine and blankets, and keeps a spreadsheet of the one’s that were killed. Does this mass need a leader?

We all know that the political will is expressed. In the past, the leader did this for the mass, he or she was their medium. Today, however, our societies are organized by media – we life in a media society, we know that. How much work of the leader can be done by a mean of communication? Seriously, can parliamentary action, as the Egypt Blogger Sandmonkey proposed, be thought in a different, technological way?

How is media changing the politics of a society? And does the leader of the future have to lead, or to listen?