Kanye being Kanye

Kanye West is a master at manipulating mass media to his advantage. Say what you will about his stunts such as renting out Madison Square Garden, his legendary twitter rants, or his jab at Taylor Swift at the VMAs, Kanye knows how to get attention. He was in top form today, using the daytime television show, Ellen, to launch into an epic rant about media, popular culture, and what it takes to change the status quo.

Social Media and the Spratly Islands

The tension around the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea continues to ratchet up and forces nations in the region to take sides. One of my favorite books about an earlier crisis, the Cuban Missile crisis, is Thirteen Days, which chronicled how JFK navigated his way to a peaceful resolution of the situation. My impression from the book was that we were able to walk Cuba and Russia back away from the ledge because President Kennedy was able to give Russia and Cuba room and allowed them to save face.

This will be difficult today where there isn’t such room to maneuver, where the geopolitical standoff is taking place in full view of the world and our tightly bound 24/7, interconnected networks.

But this new age brings danger as well. Such immediate transparency increases pressure on governments to respond to developments that may have been handled deliberately and privately in the past. For example, both Beijing and Washington made public statements within a day of the exposure of China’s missile deployment to Woody Island. In contrast, during the much more dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy had six days to plan a response before his first public statement.

Transparency may undermine stability in a brewing confrontation, as each move and countermove is broadcast worldwide. Thus, transparency may undermine stability in a brewing confrontation, as each move and countermove is broadcast worldwide. Transforming global standoffs into spectator sports will increase public pressure on leaders, reduce the time they have to react, and may foreclose politically sensitive options for de-escalation. Such compressed timelines can only increase the odds of misperception and mistakes, as transparency cannot banish uncertainty or decision makers’ biases.

Transparency’s Double-Edged Sword

One can only hope that into this hot house cooler temperaments prevail and we have leaders that are not driven to mouth off half-baked threats.

Rich Jaroslovsky on the Future of News

There’s an on-going series of video interviews with journalists on the futureof.news site. Two recent interviews were with Rich Jaroslovsky, my boss at SmartNews. Rich and I crossed paths years ago. He not only has a good instinct for what works for media online but also a history in both the print and online journalistic worlds and the deep memory for how things are put together and came to be the way they are today.

It is a huge vote of confidence that he’s working for SmartNews and, as you can see from the clips below, he’s here for all the right reasons. Some key quotes to call out:

excessive personalization is a rabbit hole. It at some point becomes an active negative, because what ends up happening is that you never discover anything new, you never discover anything that didn’t know ahead of time you would be interested in, and instead your worldview gets narrower and narrower.

. . .

When we launched WSJ.com, one of my conclusions was, serendipity is very hard to do in a digital environment. One of the great charms of SmartNews is that it has reintroduced that concept of serendipity, of finding things that you didn’t know you’d be interested in, and they turn out to be very interesting.

. . .

I’ve had many epiphanies over the years about digital journalism and how it’s different than print journalism, and one of them is that there is a craving in the audience for authenticity, for hearing things as close to the original source as possible. There are people who want to be able to access content that is from international sources, even when they are reading about stories that are being heavily covered by US media because it provides a different viewpoint.

. . .

In some ways news has been disintermediated the same way that music was. When I was in my record buying heyday and CD buying heyday, if there was a song I really liked, I had to buy the record. I had to buy the CD. And the fundamental unit was that CD, that package. I had to buy the whole package to get that one song. Now if there’s a song I like, I can buy that one song. That’s a very different model, as the music industry has learned somewhat to its despair but is adapting to. In news the same thing has happened.

The brand is no longer a destination, a place that people go to to get news. The brand is a mark of quality on that story. This is a USA Today story, I know what USA Today standards are, therefore the fact that it says USA Today, which is one of our valued partners, on top of that story—that’s a brand of quality. I know what I’m getting here. Or an NBC story, or a Huffington Post story, or a Fox News story. So it’s a very different environment, and the brand is still extremely important, but the meaning has changed quite fundamentally.

finally

My greatest hope is the the flip side of that coin—that as journalism evolves, as new forms of journalism evolve, as new delivery mechanisms evolve, that the end product is a more informed person and a more informed populace. Because I think that an informed populace is the critical element to a successful, thriving democracy. So my great hope is that as journalism works through this period of turmoil and uncertainty, that we come out the other end with models that keep citizens informed, where people can always get the information they need to make informed decisions.

You can see the entire text of the interview on the futureof.news site. I’ve also embedded both video clips below.

Part One

Part Two

Never Give Up

In the final lap of a 4×400 relay Phil Healy, the anchor runner for University College Cork women’s team, was a quarter lap down and in 5th place. She had to make up a massive gap and ahead of her and runners to chase down included a future representative for Ireland in this Summer’s 2016 Olympics.

Not only will you see an amazing comeback in the video above, as a bonus, you’ll hear two Irish announcers falling over themselves as they witness history.

UCC from the depths of hell are powering through! one announcer says.

The Washington Post has the full story behind this incredible comeback.

It’s unbelievable! What a run!

Facebook F8 2016

Many years ago when broadband internet was still emerging, I spent an afternoon with a colleague in the company cafeteria trying to imagine a world with unlimited bandwidth and storage.

We imagined that distances would collapse when the location of data would no longer matter. Music and video would be instantly available and you could call up anything you wanted to hear or see and jump to any point in a pre-recorded piece. Video conferencing would allow teams to work together, regardless of location. You could build connectors between data and services and create new views and from that gain new insights.

Om Malik once proposed that broadband would serve as the railroads of our time. In the same way that the rail system in Europe and the interstate highway in the US mobilized industry and allowed remote communities to enjoy the output of industrialized centers, ubiquitous broadband would deliver the benefits of unlimited knowledge and ubiquitous reach to everyone around the world.

facebook-f8-1

At Facebook’s F8 developer conference we heard details of several projects which combine to bring internet to everyone around the world including Aquila, a drone that flies at 60,000 feet to extend connectivity to remote regions and Terragraph and Project Aries teaching telecom companies how to improve connectivity in crowded urban areas.

facebook-vr-demo

We also learned about projects that are being built to explore what can be done with this increased connectivity. The screenshot above is from a Virtual Reality demo in which we saw two people in different locations share an experience in a 360 virtual world, taking a selfie and sharing that “photo” to Mike’s Facebook wall.

While the demo above is fantastic and paints a picture of what a shared virtual space might look like, it requires significant hardware and bandwidth to make happen. As people at Facebook like to say, this journey is only 1% finished.

Oculus Research’s Yaser Sheikh talk on Social Presence in Virtual Reality that came at the end of the Day 2 keynote (59 min. into the video above) really brought everything together. The reason Facebook needs better connectivity is because they do not want to stop at having two avatars playing around in a fixed image 360 photo.

To create a rich interaction where emotion and empathy can take place, we need to see all the subtle nuances that are expressed in the twitch of lip or roll of the eye. This is the unwritten language that we all know or what the anthropologist Edward Sapir called, “an elaborate code.”

elaborate-code

There is something visceral about interacting with someone in a shared space.  Yaser talked about the experience of his children in Pittsburg never really knowing his parents in India. To his kids, their grandparents are just, “moving images trapped behind a computer screen.” That is not how to build a lifelong relationship. Social VR aims to enable living and growing connections that are not a struggle to maintain.

capture-display-predict

There are three challenges to gaining a computational understanding of Sapir’s elaborate code.

  1. Capture – we need the ultimate motion capture of the whole body without being intrusive and in real-time. CMU’s Panoptic Studio is the state of the art but is still much too intrusive.
  2. Display – we need to transmit signals and animate avatars convincingly. The eyes, mouth, and hair are particular challenges.
  3. Prediction – we need and understanding of, “the vocabulary, the syntax, the morphology, and synchrony of social behavior” in order to write algorithms that help buffer social behaviors to overcome network latency (we all know how disruptive a bad connection can be to a video conference).

Facebook’s ambition is to reverse engineer this elaborate code. While digital video streams a live image captured by a camera, virtual reality will capture, store, and animate a digital representation of someone. Words spoken and gestures shown are broken apart and recombined.

Successfully building a prediction algorithm which can convincingly deliver requires an algorithm to continually anticipate state of mind and intent of others. This is much more than transmission of a moving image via bits – this is approaching the storage of the digital representation of what makes someone human. Building a library of all the possible human emotions and how to depict them is the ultimate moonshot and an appropriate one for a social network whose goal is to connect everyone. Stage one is capture and my sly take on the new Messaging Bot initiative is that all the conversations that are taking place on that platform are just step one in a big data harvesting program.

Come full circle, back to that company cafeteria and imagine with me what a world would be like when Sapir’s elaborate code is cracked. When a digital avatar can be successfully animated we face some interesting questions.

What royalties do you pay when a movie studio uses the digital representation of George Clooney instead of the actor himself?

Can you simulate a debate between a virtual Donald Trump and a virtual Abraham Lincoln? If so, is it fair game to write about it and quote what Lincoln said?

After Mark Zuckerberg is gone, will his employees consult his virtual avatar for management decisions? Are his avatar’s decisions contractually binding?

Will a digital representation of someone understand humor? Sarcasm? What about a parody of recent events? Will tears well up as it tries not to cry?

The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back explores what our relationship might be to a digital avatar (in this case to lost loved one) and is well worth a look if you haven’t seen it. While advances in technology can make the barriers of distance and time melt away so that we can keep relationships thriving, we must remember that the virtual world can never replace the real one and that there can never be a substitute for a face-to-face conversation.