Webstock 2017 was, by accident and design, the most powerful Webstock of the eight I have been to.
It was the perfect antidote to the malign influences that have been dominating headlines in recent months.
That didn’t mean it was an easy Webstock. In fact it’s the only Webstock – the only conference – where I found I had been welling up on several occasions during the day. And I’m not generally a welling-up kind of guy – at public events anyway.
I have been inspired and enlightened to resurrect this old blog by many of the speakers’ incredible insights.
But this first post is in direct response to the events involving the speaker right at the end that have already received much comment, social media attention and obvious painful angst from the conference organisers.
Like many at the conference I spent a lot of the weekend thinking about my own reaction – or non-reaction – to a display of unreconstructed sexism.
I talked it over with my wife. Who kindly explained to me it was an obvious example of the conditioning that patriarchy creates in most people. I talked about it with some of the women I was at the conference with who said it happens so often in their lives that their reactions to this sort of behaviour becomes dulled. But I was way beyond dull in that moment.
And I talked about it over coffee with a business acquaintance who had also been at Webstock. We had met up to talk business. We ended up talking about sexism and our reaction to Friday. We talked about how in a strange way it made the inspirational, nourishing parts of the conference even more inspirational and nourishing. It was a brief, but brutal yang to the perfect yin of the rest of the conference.
I left our coffee with my thinking over the weekend consolidating. Vowing to not just talk about it. To become more attuned and more mindful – and to break my patriarchal conditioning. I admit it shouldn’t have needed this event for me to do this but change is never perfect.
Tash and Mike – it is clear from the honest and heart-wrenching responses you have given, you have been through a personal hell this weekend. I know we all send our love to you in what was a nightmare situation for you, but your reaction to it has been as inspirational as the rest of the conference.
Through a strange mixture of accident and design Webstock 2017 has again rocked the world for a number of us. And this time for me it goes beyond a post-conference enthusiasm.
Webstock you have changed my life.
The internet and associated technology are evolving constantly. But we are now entering a new phase of digital transformation driven by two step-change advances, Blockchain and the Internet of Things (IOT).
As well as driving a whole host of digital advances, I also think this transformation can potentially lead us to become more responsible inhabitants of the non-digital world.
The combination of Blockchain and IOT may lead us to a world in which everything around us is connected and in which we essentially inhabit a global computer. Depending on your technophilia know this sentence will probably give an image either of Skynet or a more benevolent global digital society operated by smart machines.
If this sounds ridiculously futuristic take a trip back in time to 1994, and how people wrestled with the concept of the internet then, so simple to us now, so confusing then…
You’ll note the attempts by the personalities on the couch to explain it are so painful a more informed audience member is prompted to volunteer a more fact-based explanation, but which ends up being reduced by the lady on the right to “so it’s a computer billboard”.
Which was probably true about most sites in the early 90s but its limited vision missed the potential of the internet over the next two decades to transform communications, business, education, social interactions and society in general.
New Kid on the Blockchain
But for most people these explanations are a bit like explaining in 1994 the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web – when the conversation we should be having is the aspirational vision that writers like William Gibson were conjuring at the time:
“I sometimes suspect that we’re seeing something in the Internet as significant as the birth of cities. It’s something that profound and with that sort of infinite possibilities. It’s really something new; it’s a new kind of civilization. And of course the thing I love about it is that it’s transnational, non-profit – it isn’t owned by anyone – and it’s shape is completely user driven. What it is is determined by the needs of millions and millions of users. So cyberspace is evolving to meet the needs of individuals all over the world. – William Gibson, 1995“
Or as someone else put it: “Forget how the technology works and focus on what it does.”
The way I see it is that Blockchain is leap transforming the internet from a global network of information storage and content sharing, to a global network of value storage and value transfers. Just like the information internet disrupted information and content based industries like news, books and music, this next evolution will do the same first to any industry that manages value: banks; payment networks; exchanges; lawyers; auditors.
It creates new digital paradigms for the likes of finance and even identity and its decentralised, immutable nature means there would be true digital trust at a global level, like never before.
Just like the digital disruption of the last 20 years that tore information industries apart, this new model internet will knock down walls and break up silos of industries so far largely uninterrupted. It will also move the world closer to the promise of Ethereum – essentially a world computer.
Now combine Blockchain with the other oncoming evolution, the Internet of Things, as IBM are investigating and I think that a technology revolution could be harnessed to drive environmental sustainability.
By 2020 Cisco estimates 50bn physical devices will be digitally networked with sensors and transmitting data about what they do – from vehicles, wearables and healthcare to connected homes which will even include, for example, smart toilets.
The smart toilet will use sensors to report on your health. It will save lives through early warnings on health issues. But it could also save water and even prevent pollution. Today I may carelessly drop an earbud (or worse) into a toilet bowl and there is only my conscience standing between me and the action of flushing that object into our waterways. However a toilet that can detect pregnancy or prostate issues could easily be programmed to stubbornly refuse to flush non-biodegradeable litter.
Smarter life on earth
Now take this beyond the humble, possibly comical-sounding idea of a smart toilet and imagine a world of connected devices monitoring and recording our other activities and their impacts on ourselves or the natural world. Devices can be programmed with environmentally sustainable actions such as optimising buildings for energy use; alerts for water leaks; automated lighting adjusters to save energy; monitoring soil and air.
And with Blockchain this information and the actions around it would be lodged in an immutable, trusted global network that can’t be lobbied or bribed or corrupted.
Now it’s not just my conscience between the earbud, the flush button and the deep blue sea. This digitised world could actually enforce doing the right thing by the environment.
Within this future world, populated by humans and their smart devices, the smart toilet is just one example of how this next generation internet could compel us to become more at one with the planet we call home.
PS: Ethereum conference in New Zealand next week
If you want to learn more about the business opportunities around Blockchain and Ethereum come to www.ethereum.nz next week in Auckland and Wellington. You will hear from five speakers from all over the world, including Ethereum founder and CTO Taylor Gerring, and have the opportunity to ask questions
If you work for any fast growing company these days it’s highly likely that enabling customers to access your products and services through online is a key plank in your company’s strategy and success.
Which, in an age of mass technology consumerism, probably also means that your company has a technology-enabled workforce to support your customers. And your Information Technology department has a dual focus of supporting the enterprise as well as an external focus in creating great digital customer experiences.
And what I’ve firmly come to believe is that this situation of having the most technologically-skilled part of your workforce getting it both ways is bad for your IT department and bad for your business.
If you look back this wasn’t the nature of IT departments when IT departments originated back in the 60s and 70s. Your original IT department was born out of the teams of skilled technicians who made the telephone network in your organisation work; kept the fax machines humming and were the team responsible for grappling with the implication of the 4004 microprocessor post 1971.
But because most companies weren’t technology-focused, IT weren’t part of the “business” as we’d recognise “the business” now. They were the electrical engineers who kept the lights on and spent their days ensuring the workforce could communicate and share information as efficiently as possible. They would never, or rarely, deal with the needs of external customers.
With the dawning of the internet and the growth of digital businesses in the 80s and 90s it suddenly occurred to businesses that these backroom guys were also the ones who were also able to code web pages; build servers and were suddenly essential to digitally enablement. IT’s role was now about building internet experiences and more for your external customers and also keeping the phones and fax machines running.
So the technology guys suddenly became absolutely key to business strategies and the customer experience. For technology companies founded in the 1970s like Apple, Microsoft the IT department was the business. To work for one of these companies you obviously needed to understand technology – but equally obviously your customer needs as well. These technology companies, so familiar now, changed the face of business and IT forever.
Amazon is a company founded in the mid 1980s and whose success is purely due to embracing the new paradigm from the get go. This was an IT department selling books to the world who then ended up selling IT to the world. Their CEO Jeff Bezos came from Wall Street but was, and is, intensely customer focused.
True to his words Bezos created a company that didn’t separate the IT department from the business, its IT department was its business.
And Amazon’s success should be a template for all companies worth their salt these days – and for most digital start-ups this is the case. The techies aren’t in the basement cooking up the medicine – they’re in customer-facing delivery teams working alongside the product and marketing teams.
The focus of an IT department should be not just on satisfying internal customers. They need to be part of the business (if not the business) that’s working to satisfy the customers who buy your products and services. Drag them out of the basement and get them in front of real customers.
In the companies I’ve worked for in the last 10 years (Orange; Telecom NZ and Kiwibank) I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum as the pendulum has swung between IT teams being integrated or not integrated into business units. In that time the most success I have seen is when IT hasn’t been IT, but been driving the business from the front. And that’s why many companies, including my own, are embracing Agile software development and delivery.
That’s great for external customers – and internal staff too:
Google CIO Ben Fried: “I see a lot of CIOs spending a lot of time — which is very important to do — on major business initiatives. But I often see an inadequate amount of time spent where the day-to-day, most frequent touchpoints are, which is with all the other ways the people in the company are their users. One of the big changes that has come with the mass consumerization of technology is that IT needs to flip that around a little and spend more time focusing on the overall employee experience.” There’s more from him here.
With online being a key strategy for all large businesses I believe the pendulum is now stuck and the era of large IT departments is over. IT is our business.
I had an experience with some step-change technology recently that reinforced how sometimes your opinion is worthless until you’ve actually tried something.
I’m talking about Google Glass. Last month I had the great privilege of visiting Google’s Googleplex campus in Mountain View, San Francisco, and found myself wearing a pair of the internet connected eyeware.
Like every other person on the tech-obsessive-geek-scale I had read much and watched as many videos as I could when these glasses were first announced. I had followed Google’s founder and Head of Innovation Sergey Brin as introduced Google Glass through a team sky-diving from a Zeppelin, filming their descent live on the internet using Google Glasses.
I had also looked at the media around the first prototype, bulkier versions and thought – “no way”. And I’d certainly had more than a few water-cooler conversations around the potentially socially-awkward nature of talking to someone else while wearing a pair of glasses behind which you may or may not be searching information on that person or filming them.
“Remember when video cameras first came on phones and everyone was worried you’d be filmed in the changing room”, remarked one male colleague.
“What if you’re standing by a children’s playground wearing one of those? How could you prove you’re just looking at the sports results and not some videophile.”
The whole action of someone’s eye’s flicking upwards and away from you to look at an invisible screen while in conversation just silently screamed as being socially unacceptable.
And to be honest my encounter with Google Glasses at Mountain View couldn’t answer those questions completely. But what I did learn was that as a user the experience was quite amazing and which left me hungering for more. The experience was so positive any previous doubts suddenly vanished into the air like soap bubbles.
The frames are very very light, stylish but robust. I wear glasses everyday and they felt just as comfortable as my frames do.
The right hand frame arm is where the glasses gear is kept and that was barely wider than some designer frames you get on regular glasses.
To fire up Google Glass you simply say “Ok Glass” and suddenly there’s a screen that seems about the size of a widescreen TV hovering at what appears a metre or so away from your eyes, slightly up to the right. When you look up at it the screen it appears to move down into your path of vision.
You can use a number of voice commands to call up maps; Google search; take a picture and other commands to send or share via Google+, Facebook or Twitter. Or you can tap and swipe down with your fingers on the right hand frame.
Sound comes through sound waves going through your cranium, rather than via your ears. It feels a bit weird at first but then is quite natural. And apparently the Project X team at Google have had reports from deaf users that they can now hear things again – an amazing and unexpected spin-off.
You are suddenly hands-free on everything your smartphone can offer you. It really is like the first time you take your hands off the handlebars of a bike – it’s a rush! You act a bit crazy.
After a few minutes it was amazing how comfortable it felt having the internet literally right in your face. I felt like a learner driver – and my New Zealand accent was giving the glasses some pause for thought – but very quickly it had gone from feeling like a sci-fi experience to one of usefulness and joy.
Sergey Brin’s vision right from the start of founding Google was that one day search queries would be irrelevant – the right information would just come straight to you. He believes Google Glass is that vision made manifest. He talks more about the philosophy of Google Glass in this Ted Talk.
I believe there is one set of Google Glasses in New Zealand being worn by an artist somewhere down south. He was given them by Google to aid with sculpture but now apparently uses them in every part of his day. He told them he couldn’t go back to life without them.
If I’d read that before wearing them I probably would’ve scoffed at that remark. Google Glass are definitely the shock of the new – and I guess sometimes you just have to physically experience the new for it to make sense.
Who knew the internet was envisioned in 1908 – five years after the Wright Brothers flight and the year New Zealand completed its first North Island end-to-end passenger rail service?
In 1908 the Serbian-American physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla in predicted: “It will be possible for a businessman in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London… An instrument not bigger than a watch will enable its bearer to hear anywhere… music or song [or] the speech of a political leader… delivered in some other place, however distant.”
Tesla was definitely a man out of his time – a visionary and inventor in the same league of Da Vinci, and today would be his 157th birthday. As well as envisioning the internet Tesla’s list of inventions is incredible – radio (US Supreme Court recognised his precedence over Marconi in 1943); remote controls; alternating current and the AC motor.
So my post today is in honour of this great man who, like Turing, was treated badly by his time. For more on this there’s a great, vitriolic Oatmeal post on on why Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived.
But while I am in awe of Tesla’s inventions such as AC and radio – it’s his work in wireless electricity that really really spins my wheels and, because it’s his birthday, I wanted to profile that stream of his genius and where it is today. While Tesla achieved fame his inventions never received the backing to achieve their vision. He died on January 7th, 1943 in the Hotel New Yorker, where he had lived for the last ten years of his life.
As I write at my desk my mind is immediately drawn to the web of of wires that powers the six entertainment devices in our living room and the multiple other electrical things around the house. But mainly the constant, half-starved nature of my smartphones that crave electricity on a daily basis like ultra-marathon runners crave carbs. Imagine a world free of wires and in which devices magically power up without ever having to plug in.
Tesla successfully proved wireless electricity in 1891 – the same year he became an American citizen.
At his lab, Tesla produced streams of electricity 135 feet long. People walking along the street observed sparks jumping between their feet and the ground. Electricity sprang from taps when turned on. Light bulbs within 100 feet of the lab glowed even when turned off. For Tesla I would imagine the vision of our world literally wrapped in wire would have been nightmarish.
While Tesla was famously predicting an unprecedented global industrial revolution from wireless electricity in 1906 – in 2013 the focus is more how this technology can address specific commercial and personal painpoints.
A New Zealand company is leading the world in delivering the vision of a wireless electronic future.
PowerbyProxi is a start-up that’s come out of Auckland University’s engineering department and which has taken some ground-breaking wireless power technology innovations and created business and consumer products. They say wireless power today is a proximity based system – to do things efficiently power can be transmitted over a maximum distance of about 8 inches. So customer benefits and value have to be derived from within that fundamental design envelope.
The company was founded in 2006 by Fady Mishriki and Greg Cross – 101 years after Tesla closed up shop and laid off his staff after losing backing for a 187ft tall tower in New York that would transmit both signals and power without wires to any point on the globe. The huge magnifying transmitter would turn the earth into a gigantic dynamo which would project its electricity in unlimited amounts anywhere in the world. His financial backer, J P Morgan, infamously pulled the plug on this by declaring: “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” (Source – Tesla society biography)
So fast-forward to 2013 and Power By Proxi has invented a way to wirelessly transfer efficient power in the most difficult places: from a miniaturized receiver inside a AA battery to a mission critical solution in the demanding and hostile environment of a wind turbine control system. The company has worked with customers on over 50 real world projects initially focusing on complex industrial applications.
But it also has created the first commercial wireless recharging system capable of 3D power transfer, regardless of how the device is positioned in the recharging unit.
In the US in 2006, Marin Soljacic, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sent wireless electricity across a room to light a 60-watt bulb. Soljacic used electromagnetic induction, but with a twist. By tuning the sending and receiving coils in his electromagnetic field to resonate at the same frequency and engage only at that frequency (the way glass will shatter when struck by sound waves of just the right pitch), the current is focused and bypasses everything else, humans included. Resonant coupling, as Soljacic’s process is known, is far more efficient than Tesla’s attempts, and safer too.
Soljacic has a company called WiTricity, and he can now send 3,000 watts across a room—or a garage, since 3,000 watts can charge an electric car. You can see a compelling demo of wireless electricity by WiTricity in this TED talk.
I find it fascinating that a technology demonstrated over a century ago is now being taken seriously by science and business. And today I salute the genius of the 19th Century-born Nikola Tesla who pioneered what seems like such a 21st Century concept.