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Ecosystems, questions and useless projects
Ephemeral Reviews, Essays and Opinions s°02.ep14 - 2020.07.21
Dear Stéréo readers,
This very issue of our newsletter will be the last one for me (Tom) as Stéphane’s duettist. I’ve recently been elected Deputy Mayor of my city and want to dedicate more time to this rather different sound system. It’s been a pleasure to be the DJ to MC Stéphane (and vice versa) to curate the best sounds from our digital ecosystem for you. I’ll definitely continue tuning in on the Stéréo broadcast, cause this boombox is gold!
Congratulations T, 32 tunes later, that was a great playlist and lots of fun - and thinking - to jam with you. Local government is a kind of different music but it certainly needs great and fresh performers just like you.
Dear readers, we will miss Tom a lot but the show must (and will!) go on… Stéréo will be back in September.
Enjoy your summer,
You look taller with the nation’s scarf Tom. Farewell! (S)
We’ve been waiting for a long time for new players to break the Google-Facebook online ads duopoly. Amazon has been making progress, and now TikTok is getting serious about businesses leveraging its platform. Link (T)
Slack is taking its game to the next level with the release of Slack Connect: now up to 20 organizations can share a single channel. What it means? It’s trying to become the connective tissue between entire ecosystems of companies. Link (T)
It should have been the wedding of two royal ecosystems, Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, all the fairies were bending over the cradle… but even a marriage of convenience can fail. Dramatically. Link (S)
Peter Thiel once said technology was at war with democracy. It is just the icing on the cake to see decentralized technologies actually serving authoritarian political systems : Beijing has just unveiled its plan for a blockchain-based government. Link (S)
I love questions. More and more. Good questioning is an art. A good question can open an entire new world, change your life.
Just think of children, so good at drawing… and asking questions. Questions are the fuel of creativity. But like anything creative, you can be more or less sensitive to certain questions. Some can be fascinating to certain people and leave others clueless. During the lockdown I dared to ask the question of Mona Lisa’s worth - playing with the idea of selling her portrait for 50 billion euros - and I loved it, it was funny to see how people reacted… here or there.
To be honest, despite my love for bold interrogations, I have always been a little weary about this next, very nerdy question: does our world even exists? do “we live in the matrix”, evolving in a global simulation? To me, this is the kind of useless question you can easily end up just wasting time with,using pointless (pro or con) arguments. A matter of sci-fi eristic.
But many people are elaborating on this investigation. Just think of the Reddit communities that gather hundreds of thousands of people to debate on this issue. Even Nick Bostrom, a famous Oxford scholar, claims there is a significant chance we do indeed live in a simulated reality. Bostrom believes that superintelligence, which he defines as "any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest", may take over our world, soon if not already. Elon Musk himself is almost certain we are just programs. It is a very recurring topic for sci-fi novels (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, to name their masters), movies (The Matrix, eXistenZ, Strange Days, …) or series (Westworld, Altered Carbon, Black Mirror, ...).
Now, you are certainly asking yourself where S(téphane) is taking us… up to a few weeks ago this fake world question was next to the flat earth interrogation in my list of failed questions. But this was before the lockdown and my experience of so many different realities and perceptions of the same event and the same threat. And since the end of the lockdown, now that everything has restarted it just seems like the screen on which our shared reality was projected until March 2020 has been shattered - and now we’re left with a void, something is missing. So my position has changed slightly, and though the question may be pointless, the allegory is nifty.
So here (finally) is my point. Let’s use this fake world allegory for our perception of the economy. According to Wikipedia, “The economy is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses, and material expressions associated with the production, use, and management of resources”. In many ways, economics is a way to describe our world. And it may be totally fake. Actually, it is getting more and more fake.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis we have all been overwhelmed with figures. Counting cases, deaths followed by billions of loans and subsidies, millions of job losses, … Our perception of the entire world was (and is) made of figures.
I am convinced that our perception has been fooled by those figures. Some of them unquestionable, some others absolutely correct from a methodological point of view, but all of them constantly deceiving us.
My favorite example here would be inflation. Inflation is by definition a way to measure the increase / decrease of prices of goods and services in an economy over some period of time. In the US, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. We all experienced tremendous changes in our consumption during the past months, cooking at home, buying more organic products, watching Netflix while all sorts of entertainment spaces were closed, stuck at home which means no driving or flying, with a very mild end of winter and start of spring, both leading to an amazing drop in energy prices… Academics started identifying this bias but there is no solution yet to describe our brave new world with its relevant metrics. Accordingly, we may live in a biased simulation.
Taking my reasoning further, I am tempted to try to use the matrix allegory to better understand the Solow paradox, yet another extraordinary question. To make a long economical concept short, the question here is “where have all our digital productivity gains gone as we can’t see their output in our GDP?”. The Solow paradox highlights mismeasurements in the economic key indicators, overestimating inflation and understating productivity, because they do not take into account the quality improvements of digital goods and goods in general. A car in 2020 is more expensive than a car in 1970 for sure but when it comes to performance, safety, etc. there really is no comparison. A cinema ticket is also more expensive today, whereas a Netflix or Disney+ subscription were not in our market baskets 10 years ago… and our children spend more time on Tik Tok than in theaters or on Netflix… for free.
We are missing something.
Actually, our economy is a biased simulation.
A couple more questions here to leave you with during a well deserved summer pause… and I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions of course when we’re back to school.
When it comes to indicators, is time more than money?
The productivity gains missing in the Solow paradox may be found on the time scale rather than on the economic outputs (dollars, euros, yuans, etc.). We, human economic agents, may be the bottlenecks ourselves, not able to consume as much as the machines would be happy to produce. But products and services are made way faster and more safely. It is high time we save time rather than money. It is a mindblowing superpower we have observed in the big internet platforms from the very beginning of our GAFAnomics studies at Fabernovel: the main thing they have in common is their ability to save our time (before wasting it but this will be another essay).
If norms and rankings are the best way to shape our reality, which standards should we invent for a more inclusive and sustainable world?
Let’s take the Shanghai ranking, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, as an example. ARWU uses six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed, and per capita performance of a university. This ranking is a perfect homothety of the global economy, a way to reinforce the state of the world more than to identify innovation or foster disruption. We need new indicators just like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index to change the world, starting with the way we measure it.
How do our biased perceptions of our world / economy make it even more difficult to identify and fight inequalities?
Just take the cinema ticket as an example again. Today’s average price may be more or less than the actualized price of a ticket over the 30, 50 or even 80 last years BUT if you consider the same ticket and adjust your calculation to the minimum hourly wages over the years, the cost has almost doubled. Movie producers and theater owners are right to say the tickets haven’t really increased - but at the same time they have become a luxury for many people.
I wish you a real sun and simulated sunburns, real good times and fake worries, and many good questions to share,
One of my favorite links this year. I kept thinking about it and postponing its sharing as it is in French. This list of great useless projects started before the Great Lockdown. To me, it is a major trend for the future. Link (S)
Software is eating the world… and vice versa! The startup Nuggs, which creates animal-free nuggets, (the “Tesla of chicken” in their own words), publishes release notes just like new versions of an app. Link (T)
Software is eating the world for sure but we won’t be eating software! Let’s see what’s cooking for the future of food in the kitchen of disruption, the Silicon Valley. Link (S)
In ecological transition, science-based targets are the new chic. Zalando has announced a plan to curb carbon emissions in its own operations by 80% in 2025. Link (T)
What if we turned ships, planes and trucks into enormous green planters? Link (T)
When less is more: if you want to write, abandon your fancy computer and use a bare-bones word processor. Link (T)
It is always mind-blowing to me to think that in the largest democracy in the western world, racial segregation was still taking place in the 1960s. The black lives matter movement highlights the fact that the fight is not over yet, as its first and greatest heroes, like John Lewis, Martin Luther King’s brother in arms, pass away. Can we really imagine what it takes to be the first to take unauthorized seats in a bus? Link (S)
You may think 2020 was the worst year ever… that is because you are less than 1484 years old. Link (S)
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Edited by Stéphane Distinguin (S), Founder and CEO of Fabernovel, and Tom Morisse (T), Fabernovel alum and Knowledge Manager at Spendesk, Stéréo is a digital-oriented newsletter highlighting the main developments and weak signals affecting the world’s societies and economies.
Fabernovel is a talent company that creates digital products and services to support companies in their transformation and innovation trajectory.
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