Black Mirror: Nosedive, Authenticity, and Lost Connections

I just finished watching Black Mirror’s episode called Nosedive, which is an interesting episode about the impact of continually rating people for every social interaction. It explores what happens when someone who was previously a very high rated person has a very bad day. It was, implied that it would happen throughout episode, that everyone was just a series of misfortunate events away from dropping from their current social hierarchy to a lower strata where they’d be unable to function in current society. Ratings indicate which jobs a person can have or not. Dropping too low indicates you’re not worthy of that job and in many cases, network effects and game theory type logic comes into play. Where you have to judge if a low ranking person or a person that’s currently out of favor would negatively impact your image.If that would drop you from a person of respect to a person of disrepute.

This episode made me uncomfortable to watch, because in a lot of ways it feels like it hits close to home as it deals with a major reason why I don’t like social media. I don’t like the constant need for validation through pictures, likes, and comments. I’ve tried to, in general avoid, Facebook lately, because it feels inauthentic, and creepy. Between Facebook, itself, tracking what you do online and partners with companies to track your shopping habits offline. Combing that with the desire to display the best of your life on platforms like Instagram, this can lead to depression.

In many articles it’s because of the fact that you’re comparing your messy every day life to what people are willing to post, which typically represents the best parts of their life. Their happy dogs, walking in a vineyard, going surfing, or some new thing that they bought. Even if you know that you are doing this, doesn’t really help. However, I think there’s a few reasons beyond that. For one, it forces you to live an inauthentic life, which is one of the major themes in the show Nosedive. The character knows she’s putting on a show and clearly has some serious anxiety around behaving that way. Her brother, who lives a more authentic life, doesn’t care as much about his social media score and directly asks for Lacie (the main character) to return to her authentic self (“remember when we had real conversations?”)

Being an inauthentic version of yourself is a type of acting as well pushing down the values you actually believe in. This is something referenced in Lost Connections as a root cause of depression. Where our intrinsic values do not align with society’s values and we must adopt society’s values over our own we become depressed. In the episode it Lacie only became aware that it was a possible to reject those norms when she was picked up by a trucker with a rate of 1.4/5. This woman allowed her to reflect on her experience as her rating declined and bottomed out.

However, it wasn’t until she’d been rejected by the society and put into a prison of sorts that she was able to find a truly authentic interaction. It was rage filled, but eventually became filled with joy as the two people in prison were able to be an authentic version of themselves.

In our society, while we don’t have the intensity portrayed in the episode with social media, it is possible we could move into that direction over time. For us to really have authentic interactions, we need to find people that support us being our authentic selves even when there are people in our lives that might not fully support our decisions. Or people in our lives that make it more difficult to be authentic.

When we buy something do we control anything?

In new routers Comcast has decided to enable another WiFi signal that is public, but separate from your network, but still using your data. Initially, you were able to fairly easily turn off the the second network, however, Comcast has started to make it much more difficult. This raises the question in my mind, around if you’re paying for a service, shouldn’t you be able to control what is happening with that service within your house? It also raises the concern in my mind that the second network will use your data cap in the areas that have data caps – and Comcast plans to expand those caps even though we hate them.

Similarly, Uber, has done some pretty horrible things around data privacy of their users. Similarly, Facebook has conducted experiments on their users and what they display. In Uber’s case you buy the service, in Facebook, you pay for it through seeing ads. In each case you do not control anything done with your data once you enter the agreement to use their services.

Apple has been accused, and admitted to, deleting songs added to an iPod by a non-iTunes service. This is even more problematic in my mind than Amazon deleting something from your Kindle, because the iPod is a physical object that you own that was only updated whenever you connected the iPod to your computer. Furthermore, Apple was deleting things you owned without your consent from a product that you own because they didn’t want their competitors content on a product in their ecosystem. It is likely many people didn’t notice because you can have so many songs on the device, but I’m sure some people were confused.

Then there is the “licensing” that happens whenever you buy software, even whenever you buy a physical copy, companies like Autodesk have sued over the right to sell that “license” again. They sued and won over someone selling their physical disks, which is pretty insane, but they wanted to protect their product and claimed that it violate’s their licenses.

In all of these cases, a company is doing something related to a service you purchased without your consent or input into how they use it. Effectively, you don’t really control the stuff you buy. Even though we all feel like we own everything we buy, we really don’t. We don’t have control over the services we purchase and this is going to get worse over time. It will get worse, because software is eating the world, and is now in many more traditional industries like mining equipment manufacturer Joy Mining. Michael Porter wrote a really lengthy article about how software is having serious impact on the future of competition he argues that software will be everywhere and in fact companies need to build the internal capability to create software. As users of these new technologies we need to understand how companies use our data and what control we actually have on the services and products we buy.

The digital generation – not special when it comes to the internet

I’m reading a book called Build for Change that has a really good message, but the way that the author talks about Generation Y, Millennials, or whatever the hell else the people born from 81-2000 are called. Essentially, he pushes forwards the theory that because we grew up at the same time as computers were truly personalized and in homes, that these folks some how have a better understanding of the internet. That these folks are more self-centered and all about me and thus harder customers to handle than any generation in the past.

Being born around computers doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a deeper connection with the technology. To some extent, since I’m frequently around computers and know how to use them in a lot of different ways, I’m surprised when I hear people my age or younger that don’t get technology. That learning to code is terrifying or how code works is a foreign concept. I’ve also met a lot of people that are older than myself that know as much or more about computers and technology than I do. Some of them are in IT, but some of them, like my Dad, aren’t truly IT specialists. They just understand that technology is a powerful tool and computers are probably the most flexible tool we’ve ever had.

Social media is one of the tools that the author claims all Millennials know how to use. This is a complete and total misconception. Sure, the kids might have a better idea than the parents, but it’s not because the parents can’t understand social media – it’s not hard to learn – they don’t have the time or the desire to learn the tool. Furthermore, just because you’re interested in computers and other digital content doesn’t necessitate an ability to understand how to use social media effectively. After working at AMD I learned first hand that I was one of the few people at the company that truly understood the tools available through social media and I definitely don’t consider myself an expert or sophisticated user of any of the social media platforms. Many of my older co-workers weren’t fluent in any of the networks, but that’s because they had other things that mattered more.

Social networks are to some extent extremely fast word of mouth networks. The difference is that between some users there used to be an intermediary – like a news paper or TV show – that would share the information with interested parties. Now, if you want Jaden Smith’s thoughts on tibetian monks and she happens to tweet about it, you’ll be able to retweet that instantly. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same reach or that all tweet will be treated equally. In fact because there is STILL an intermediary, algorithms, between trending tweets and hashtags, the reach of a given topic isn’t endless.

I’d also argue that the people that will claim they are social media experts, for the most part, are not Millennials, they are Gen Xers or Boomers. This is an obvious result because they are snake oils salesmen and a lot of social media users know they are full of crap.

The choice to be fluent in a given technology platform or “language” isn’t a matter of growing up with it. It’s about making a choice to devote time and energy to the topic. It’s no different than anything else. The big difference between a parent and the kid, is that the Kid has a lot more free time to mess around, while the parent is out working.

Kickstarter, Oculus Rift, and internet rabble rousing

The internet is mad that Facebook bought the VR company Oculus Rift. We shouldn’t be surprised that someone bought this company, it was going to have an IPO or be bought. There’s no doubt about that. The problem isn’t that it was bought, but the company that bought it.

Oculus Rift was a startup. Startups need money so they launched a Kickstarter Campaign and raised $2.4 million. Startup money typically comes from three groups of people in early stages (3Fs) – Family, Friends, and Fools. The Kickstarter campaign clearly is the fools. Not because they didn’t think the company would succeed, but that they thought they’d have a say in the end result. Kickstart has had other scams, such as the feminist blogger that was going to buy a bunch of games and show how awful they were (but didn’t). Kickstarter has always said that you are donating and has no control if you ever get anything out of it.

If a startup is successful with the money provided by the 3Fs (and this is a huge IF as this is typically called the Valley of Death in startup parlance), these companies try to get Venture Capital Funding. The VCs are the people that have a boatload of money and try to make even more by getting companies to “exit.” There are three options for “Exiting” a startup – IPO, Purchase by another company, or failure. VCs prefer your startup being purchased by another company – it has the least risk (you never can tell what your stock price will be – see Facebook’s IPO. To get this money you typically have to give up control of your company. This comes in two forms ownership and members on a board of directors. In some cases the VC will take less ownership for more members on the board. Apparently one of those people that owned a large portion of Oculus Rift was Mark Zuckerberg – he reportedly made $337 Million on the Facebook purchase of Oculus Rift. That means he owned roughly 1/6 or 16% of the company ($2 Billion sale and all). Supposedly 2 other VCs made roughly the same amount of money on the deal. Which means that the founder likely owned less than 50% of the company and could have been forced into the deal.

Effectively, the moment Mark Zuckerberg invested in Oculus Rift, the company was going to be sold to Facebook – as long as it was shown to be successful. What this means to me is that if you read or see Zuckerberg personally investing in something, expect Facebook to eventually buy it. Additionally, with Zuckerberg owning that large of a percentage of the company, there’s no way it could have been sold to any other company. It was IPO, Facebook, or bust.

With this broader context, I cannot be mad at either Luckey or the other leaders of Oculus Rift. They knew the game when they got into VC – even if you aren’t into making a lot of money when you start, your VC will push for a positive exit for themselves.

One of the angriest people about this whole thing was Notch, the Minecraft guy. He finds Facebook creepy and is upset that his $10,000 facilitated that sale. Even if he had gotten stock for his investment, he would have only had 0.42% ownership share over the company (assuming Luckey sold all his stocks through the Kickstarter which is unlikely). Unfortunately, it’s likely his stocks would have been diluted and the VCs would have controlled enough of the board and stock to force the sale to Facebook despite all the people that could have owned stock if the money had been raised through a Kickstarter alternative like Fundable.

When investing in a Kickstarter, you can’t get emotionally attached, you need to look at it as if you’re gambling. You might never get anything from it, but at least you helped someone else’s dream come a step closer to reality. I’m happy for the folks at Oculus Rift because they got lucky in a very unfair game. I don’t like Facebook either – but it was unlikely for any other outcome unfortunately.

Saving video games from publishers

There’s big money in video games. No one can deny that, especially now that the definition of casual gaming has changed from Wii type games, to games on your phone that mimic some really old school type flash games (bejeweled for example). One of the largest game publisher is EA, they have been notorious for making both amazing games (BF4), amazingly bad games, amazing games with poor execution (SimCity), and amazing cash grabs (Dungeon Keeper iPhone). However, it’s not alone in trying to destroy gaming.

Zynga made a pretty big run at the title and likely helped shape the current state of our gaming industry. They were the original most successful company in facebook for gaming coming up with Mobwars and Farmville. They’ve been replaced with (Candy Crush) now though and have nearly gone out of business. At one point they had a higher valuation than Facebook.

The point of these games is similar to a casino. Keep you coming back and keep you putting money into the machine. They design games to be addicting and put frustrating blockers in your way to entice you to pay money to overcome those obstacles. They technically are “Free-to-play” but they certainly aren’t “free-to-have-fun”. For example, about a year ago Real Racing 3 came out and to unlock everything with cash, it would cost $503!

The article that got me thinking about this topic highlights a 1997 game called Dungeon Keeper which has been released on mobile platforms. In the game you build a dungeon and try to kill heroes that come through and kill your monsters. One of the things you do is dig out spaces for your dungeon, this used to just take a minute or two in game time. Well, EA did it’s little cash grab option with it and now that same space will take roughly 30 hours to mine out unless you pay them money to speed that up! Here’s a video with a nice little summary of the topic.

Now, we know that this hasn’t been limited to mobile games for some time. It’d hit the hardcore gamers in the form of Downloadable content (DLC) and in many cases would be a $15 or so charge to make the game functional on top of the $50-$60 you already paid for the game. In some cases they’ll also charge you for other visual upgrades and stuff like that.

In some cases the companies are doing it because it’s a beloved franchise and they know people will fork over the money for it even if they’ve vowed to never buy from that company again (BF4 after SimCity debacle for instance). This is because they are able to charge monopoly prices being the only game in town.

In other cases, they are able to charge this behavior because of the addictiveness of the game and the pressure of your peers playing the same game. It’s a casino mixed with keeping up with the Joneses mentality. The worst of the worst and company are pulling in as much money as they can on it. In many cases those games are straight up copies from other companies – or at least the game mechanics are the same.

This has made some people discouraged over the future of the gaming business model. I believe that we have some of the most generous people in the world in gaming. You have the Extra-Life fund raising event, HumbleBundle, and a ton of other things like that. There are also really honest folks out there trying to break into the industry, just look at Steam Green Light, Kickstarter Games (check out KBMOD’s Crowdsourced corner), and just the sheer number of new games and apps that have a single price and are honest about their pricing (this link will take you to a list of games that are pay upfront or honest free to play).

Which makes me think that we have two different type of people running gaming companies. We clearly have psychopaths at the head of the company and normal regular people trying to do right by their customers. I think the hardest thing is, we have honest people working for those psychopaths, which is unfortunate.

What can we do as gamers and employees? Well, if you think your CEO is a psychopath leave; it’s going to be an unhealthy work environment in general. Secondly, if we want to see those business models die, educate your friends on how horrible this movement is for gaming in general and point them to cheaper alternatives that aren’t cash grabs. Help inform your friends that aren’t savvy about this. Send them links to games that are better, more fun, and less vile in their pricing schemes.

If you have any recommendations for honest, safe gaming, let me know in the comments!

Startups are going to save us, relax everybody

In typical Silicon Valley Breathlessness Forbes published an article by Victor W. Hwang arguing the fact the Startup movement isn’t about startups. He argues that it’s actually a movement to free people from the chains of our current economic system. I definitely don’t buy this. Most people start a company for one of two reasons, they find a problem that they have a better solution for than anything provided (or a novel solution) or to make money. Typically it’s a combination of the two. No company in existence is out there not to make money. Companies that aren’t profitable cannot stay in business for long unless you’re lucky and funded by people that thing you will eventually make them a lot of money.

An opinion piece in the NY Times from 1/2/2014 pretty much sums this fact up. You’re replaceable at a startup and likely even more so than any time in the  future of the company. It’s really easy to fire people when you have no money, especially if you are open and honest about how you go about letting people go.

Furthermore, if the startup movement was in fact about bettering the plight of people we wouldn’t be seeing the social stratification that we’re seeing in cities like San Francisco, ground zero for the startup movement. In SF some of the neo-techno-libertarian-elite are upset that they even see the poor people on their streets rather than out of the way like in cities like NYC (he issued an apology not unlike Tiger Wood’s for being a sex addict). Not only are these the people that are involved in the startup movement, but they are funding it. Yes, I know that this is only one person and on the other side you can point to Alexis Ohanian of Reddit fame, which really is doing a lot of social good.

In some ways the startup movement has made it easier for people to be cogs in the wheel. They work long hard hours, large companies like Facebook and Google push and push to get more for less. In many cases this can cause depression and the exact opposite of what the Startup movement is striving for. In fact, the goal of the Lean Startup is to make it extremely easy to ramp up new employees and ensure full coverage if something goes wrong. These companies and products are designed around the idea of building in quality rather than testing or patching it in. Of course, there’s a benefit to the employee in these cases too – they’re free to really explore new problems and create new things without needing to worry about reoccurring problems.

I do believe there are many startup founders are genuinely trying to change our society for the better, but it hasn’t been a frictionless process and will likely only get worse as we move forward. The Sharing Economy, for example, has come under fire from traditional companies, neighbors, politicians, and even members of the sharing economy. While in other cases, such as Zynga, we see companies that are essentially parasites that thrive through creating addicting games and clogging a platform with their notifications (those notifications stopped and Zynga basically died).

It’s important to be skeptical of statements that glorify any portion of our culture. The article that spurred me to write this has a similar tone as many of Thomas Freeman’s, of the NYTimes, articles, fully optimistic, but missing a broader portion of the population and the long term impact. We should be wary of these articles because we’ll end up believing that it’s more complicated to calculate a median value than an average. The startup movement is to help people start companies, some founders are dreamers, some truly try to change how work is done, but they most aren’t truly changing the world in amazing ways. We’ll be fine if reddit, AirBnB, or some other services vanishes. We were when Digg, Google Reader, Palm and any other influential company vanished.

Tracking the right metric

Last week I wrote about the Facebook IPO and how I felt that for the company the shift to stock price metric tracking was a big deal. I said that there has been a shift from what Facebook was and could be to the broader public to how all of its actions impact the stock price for the company. Today, in an article on Forbes they published an article about the impact of what you measure and how it impacts later choices. One of the things they didn’t mention was how frequently this measure or metric is reported. These all matter.

Looking at Facebook, I think it’s rather clear why Zuckerberg has publicly stated that he doesn’t care about the stock price of the company. Stock price is continually reported and when major milestones are passed, either in the positive or negative, everyone is talking about it. Apparently, Facebook dipped below $30/share today. Is this the end of the world? No, but it does mean that a lot of people have lost a lot of money.

Let’s look at stocks. Do they truly reflect the value of a company? I, personally, don’t think so. There are so many factors that shift the price of a given stock in a week, that it’s impossible for the value of the company to fluctuate in such a manner. However, the price of a stock does impact what a business is able to do. Companies are able to leverage their stock values for loans and interest rates, which means that a company can suddenly gain or lose market capital if the stock market swings for something completely unrelated to them and investors sell of their stock.

Despite the fact that, at best, there’s a loose correlation between the actual value of a company and the price of its stock, CEOs are held accountable to this metric by investors. Now, maybe some CEOs do ignore the value like Zuckerberg plans on doing (I’ve heard Jeff Bezos from Amazon does), however, when it’s continually reported and discussed it likely will change some behavior even if the CEO does their best to ignore the stock price. Even if the CEO does ignore it, in many cases the board or the investors will not. They may take serious action if the CEO does not work to ensure that their metric, stock value, continues to increase.

However, this may drive the wrong behavior. Tracking the wrong metric may be answering the wrong question. What increases our stock price may not be the same answer to what keeps our company competitive. A company that reduces work force to cut expenses for the end of the year, may seriously be hampering their ability to compete over the next few years. The change will likely bolster the performance of the stock in the near term but will likely lead to greater drops in the medium or long term.

Company management should not solely be measured on stock price alone and neither should a company. As much as I dislike Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is a company that actually has more value than simply its bottom line. It is able to create new networks and new places for activists to work. Now is this likely to continue? I don’t know. Could another company come along and beat them at it? Definitely. That’s why Facebook bought Instagram and will likely buy other companies that could threaten their market space.