02 Apr How to make people happy with tech (get rid of the tech)

[Reprinted on the Jiber blog]

A couple weeks ago, I gave a presentation for an anthropology course called Anthropology and Digital Media at the University of British Columbia. It let me bring back all these thoughts I have about my university degree in anthropology, and how I’ve seen its value over the years. I figure it can be best distilled, for me personally, as 1) the process of examining a situation from a blend of science and culture, and crafting words to understand it holistically, and 2) the understanding of how innate and cultural human behaviours determine our reaction to new products.

Here’s the presentation I threw together (slides and bullets and all that mighty scary stuff) and a few thoughts. It’s called “How to make people happy with tech (get rid of the tech)”:

My shtick seems to have become “mobile + anthropology” which has spanned my higher education and career to date. I’ve been part of building products for mobile since back in the days when they were fully controlled by mobile carriers, and working with carriers was the best (and only) way to have an impact there. Mobile was, and still is, the future. And I’ve always approached product development from the perspective of human drivers of behaviour.

What is the Internet? It’s about people. Or, more specifically, about connecting people. Danny Hills’ TED Talk puts this in perspective:

Danny Hillis has a book. It’s a directory of everyone in the world who had an internet address in 1982, including the names, addresses and telephone numbers. And it was a very thin phonebook. That was the community. It was a tight community where everyone knew and trusted each other.

Hillis has been a fixture of the tech world (see his TED Talk from 1984 on DNA and its uses). He registered the third domain name in existence: think.com. But he only registered that one, thinking it wouldn’t be nice to take more than he needed…

The drivers of human behaviour can be analyzed by things like genetics, community, and culture, and these are exactly the holistic pillars of the study of anthropology. To make people happy with your tech development, you need to consider all of these things, these “primary” and “secondary” drivers: food and sex firstly, and then narcissism, design and skeuomorphism, intuition, sharing, and magic, etc.

But then… PUT THE TECH AWAY. “Use the Internet to get off the Internet,” someone once said. Let the tech enhance your life and experiences, and then put it away and live your life fuller and maybe more engrossed. Tech, and its rapid changing and superphones and always-on-connectivity, can cause anxiety (Martin Scrocese), awkwardness (never let me see you taking a glorious photo on an iPad), and separation from reality (thinking about that Strava KOM instead of enjoying the scenery and the joy of suffering).

Technology has also often been a compromise or a stop-gap. Still photography originated because we obviously didn’t have the means during the days of the daguerreotype etc to capture moving images and sound. Now as we figure out how to capture, publish, and consumer it more digestible ways (YouTube to Socialcam to Vine), will photography last? Cars, roads, and the combustion engine — will those magnificent and ubiquitous technological innovations disappear soon?

Will “pull knowledge” — actively seeking answers to your questions — be more and more replaced by contextual push information, so that what you want (based on your schedule, your location, and your interests) will be tailored to you at that very moment? Check out Google Now, Foursquare, and Tempo.

Now that the processing power in our pocket is about what you had on your desktop ten years ago, will the desktop become a relic of the stop-gapped past? And then, what’s next after mobile devices in our pocket? Well, just have a look at Google Glass, with all its scrutiny about privacy and privilege and dorkiness, yet it still pushes relevant information to your peripheral vision, and then it gets out of the way.

Well, that’s what we’re building with Jiber — helping you make the most meaningful connection with people you’re meeting in the real world. The vision is social interactions to create a collaborative (and fun) connection between people, and we’ve only just begun.

Tech is entering every market, and community is entering every tech. These are just more guidelines to approaching tech from an anthropological perspective.

My last thought was some inspiration to the anthropology students (in the classroom and out in the world). From the days of building early-Internet websites in college, I’ve always enjoyed building things for people. At the same time, programming (on a scale of intuitive language computation to complex systems I personally still don’t understand) will become a unavoidable part of the workload of the future, so I urged all these great students and critical thinkers to jump into learning to code. Don’t fear that it’s onerous. Check out:

And at least one has already signed up.

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21 Mar With Jiber at SXSW

I’m now back from my first South by Southwest festival in Austin. There’s so much to digest but a few lasting thoughts to take home.

Lessons for other tech cities: This isn’t Silicon Valley. This is in the middle of Texas and the meeting ground of not just what’s in Silicon Valley but in every tech hub around (mostly) North America. The #VegasTech bash was a great reminder of a fledgling tech centre doing the right things to get on the map: investment from successful exits (Zappos) into startups and new infrastructure (the Downtown Project), startup spaces mixed with art and music (all the bands playing were from Vegas and remarkably or somehow connected to the entrepreneurs at the party), and contagious optimism and support. The rest — a tech university, government support, local venture capital — is just gravy.

Keep Austin weird: What an incredible town. Who’d think such a progressive town would be in the heart of Texas. There’s music on every corner, people dancing, pride for local dripping good food and BBQ, a top university, beautiful buildings and landscape, and a helluva dollop of personal style. And plenty of newfound secrets for the next visit, either SXSW or not: BBQ without the tourist lines, the special local music venues and bars and restaurants, and new places to explore and run.

SXSW exists on so many levels for different people, and it’s changing so quickly. SXSW happens in the conference center presentations, on the downtown streets, in hotels, and around small dinner tables and bars, but also in hot tubs, running trails, rolling buses, and surprisingly also far away from downtown.

And it’s changing so quickly, especially with new abilities to document it, keep aware of everything going on on-the-fly, and connect with people. Is our documentation taking away from living it? Are we suffering from FOMO by always scheming the next stop? Is there too much noise between startups, bands, and big brands?

Then SXSW Music comes to town. And Austin goes up ten levels. The streets are crammed and buzzing, and there’s a party and shows everywhere. Musicians set up ad-hoc concerts on the street and on top of trucks, trying to get noticed, and maybe even pulled into a venue by a bar owner. But it’s not just struggling artists trying to get attention; SXSW is covered by signed bands with major label backing trying like everyone else get exposure. These established acts are, like everyone else and like they probably did years ago, given five minutes to set up, soundcheck in front of a live audience, and then getting thrust out into the audience. Everyone is hustling is this brutal market, one that still, 15 years later, has not nailed a business model since Napster turned it all upside down. You’ll also find some of the biggest musicians around just rolling from venue to venue checking out for themselves what’s out there.

Some of my favorite acts:

Everything is tech and everyone an entrepreneur. Watching deadmau5 geek out with Richie Hawtin on a couple couches in front of a full crowd — everything is becoming tech. Seeing every artist hustle alongside startups — everyone is an entrepreneur.

It’s all about the people. SXSW is fundamentally about the people with whom you interact. I recall fiercely battling as goalie with the HootSuite ball hockey team, diving into a meaningful chat with Stephen Wolfram at 2am, running into longtime friends, encouraging remarkable musicians on their quest for exposure, and unexpectedly making some deep connections with people.

Reminder: what is the Internet? It’s about people. It’s about connecting people. More on that in my next post here.

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02 Mar Airline ticket prices: the last 30 years and the mysterious future

Why aren’t we happy with airline ticket prices? Because airlines convolute the pricing so many ways that we don’t know what the seat is really worth:

“Why don’t we appreciate this heyday in bargain flying? … The second, and less obvious, reason why we don’t recognize the amazing fall in ticket prices is that average consumers don’t know what a plane ticket “should” cost. Some prices, we know, as if by heart… Essentially, Americans are expert shoppers, not mathematicians.”

via How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50% in 30 Years (and Why Nobody Noticed)

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24 Feb A rallying cry for the travelling cyclist

Wouldn’t it be much easier to be a travelling runner?

Instead, we choose to travel around the world, by car, train, bus, and plane with our beloved bicycle. But it’s when we get to airplane travel, we encounter the wrath of airline policies on travelling with a bike.

And you will know they hate you then.

Flying with a bike cardboard
Flying out of Perpignan on thevictour.com, our 2010 trip

Airlines will charge between $0 and $200 per flight leg to bring your bike. This is preposterous, and these evil policies must die. Here in Canada we pay $70-100 on Air Canada and $70 on WestJet

Meanwhile, golfers seem to be loved by airlines — wealthy “lobbyists” perhaps — and as such rarely pay to bring their oversized golf bags.

Meanwhile, quantifiably, aren’t most cyclists fit and light, and so, even with the weight of their bike case, they’re lighter than many other passengers (via @amyakirkham)? And, unlike my recent endless three-hour wait on the airport tarmac to deal with an unhealthy passenger, most cyclists are healthy and probably won’t delay flights or aggravate flight attendants with health issues or needs.

How can we change this?
Consider choosing your flights and airlines based on their policy. Speak with your wallet. I’d love to see a comprehensive list of who charges what, but the reality is that it’s changing so quickly (in an upward trajectory) that it’d be obsolete soon.

Make a stink! I’ve had fun aggravating agents at check-in about their proposed bike charges. Normally, anything under $100 and I’ll comply. But with enough stubbornness, you can eventually get your bag through without a charge — not for the frequent use.

Make a stink using social media with your upcoming airlines.

And, share your thoughts and this post!

The worst?
Delta and Lufthansa are the worst I’ve seen, charging $150-200 per leg.

The best?
Many overseas flights won’t charge — unclear why — but do take advantage. Check out Virgin, BA, KLM.

Other tricks to travelling with your bike:

  • Don’t look like a cyclist, or you’ll be prey for bike charges. Avoid cycling related clothes, stay away from other cyclists at the airport, and don’t strap your helmet to the outside of your carry-on — a dead giveaway.
  • Pack a starting pistol in your bag — you’ll have to declare it, but TSA will assign an agent to your bag, and, promise, your bag will not go lost.
  • Don’t say it’s a bike in the bag! When asked, you can say it’s: camping gear, bike parts or “sports” parts, trade show materials, art, or even deposition materials. Yep, be nice and funny.
  • Get a bike frame with couplers and pack it super compact http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ml5ZsuEdqOY
  • Don’t pack CO2 canisters — they may be detected and set off bike alarms
  • Put your foot under box while it’s being weighted to *slightly* lighten the weight under the 50 pound threshold. Also to get under the threshold, use a lighter soft-shell case or pack in a cardboard box.
  • Join an airline rewards program, and you may evade charges.
  • Remove your rear derailleur — the hanger is often a flight damage hazard. Also, protect your dropouts with those plastic pieces that come with new bikes. Wrap your tubes in cut up swimming noodles, a yoga mat, cardboard, or bubble wrap. Pack your frame upside down to protect the rear derailleur hanger.
  • Pack as little else inside your case to keep the weight down and agents and bag-handlers less grumpy.

And my two favourite tips:

Good luck, or let’s speak up. Perhaps an online petition via change.org/petition.

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16 Feb What happens when Maker’s Mark dilutes their bourbon

The makers of Maker’s Mark recently announced to their distributors that they are decreasing the alcohol content of their bourbon from 45% to 42%. It’s clear that the demand for bourbon is skyrocketing, and they believe that watering it down won’t be a noticeable taste difference. It looks more like a knock to their reputation, if you are trying to associate your product as a small-batch, handmade product. Matthew Yglesias in The Economics of Watering Down Maker’s Mark writes:

The issue there is simply that a three percentage point difference in alcohol content clearly will change the taste of a beverage. There’s just no way around it. If you can alter the formula that much without people caring, you’re just saying your customers aren’t really paying attention to the flavor of the drink.

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