I’ve been a subscriber to Netflix for 15 years. It’s a small cost. There are months I go without watching anything. But it’s there. And that’s how I want it.
That being said, I just want to put it on the record (again) that I’m bearish on the future of Netflix. The proximate reason is that major competitors with deep pockets and huge corporate backing are coming into the field of streaming (hello Disney!). But the ultimate rationale is that I think Netflix’s “superstar” system in relation to employees is going to kill any ability to navigate a tough patch with all hands on deck.
Basically, Netflix’s culture is hyper-rational and takes for granted that its employees are similar. “Grown-ups.” This is fine during a growth phase, or when times are good. But if Netflix seems like it might not be the future, why wouldn’t all the superstar employees find better opportunities? And once some superstars start leaving, that will reduce Netflix’s prospects, meaning all the superstars will leave en masse, accelerating the decline. And according to Netflix’s credo, they would be behaving entirely rationally.
The company doesn’t make a pretense of loyalty to its employees beyond what they can bring to the table for the company. Similarly, the company won’t be able to lean on any sentimental loyalty from its employees if it needs to right its ship or seems like anything less than a sure bet.
And yet back during the summers between school years in college, I’d spend a fair amount of time haunting several IRC channels, mostly on UNDERNET. You met some weird people, some nice people, and some unpleasant people. Generally, my utilization of IRC was heavily cyclical, just like my reading and posting in USENET groups. If I had better thing to do, I’d go do them.
Perhaps one of the strangest things about IRC and USENET is a few people from those days actually ended up finding me on the web, with the rise of the paleoblogosphere. At least one long-time commenter knows me from a USENET group back in the late 1990s, while the RSS aggregator that pushes my total content feed was written by an anarcho-libertarian programmer and philosopher who I actually met first when he was a teen nerd in the Deep South.
That old internet culture is disappearing and becoming legend, just like the “homebrew computer” era of the 1970s was for my generation.
In the open thread, I made a casual comment that I’ve become a bit more skeptical of market efficiencies lately. Remember, in the perfect market, the profit of the firms should converge upon zero. Is this to anyone’s benefit? Obviously, it is to the benefit of the consumer. But what happens in the long term when firms can’t make any money?
This crossed my mind recently in regards to Craigslist. Craigslist is notoriously no-frills and reflects an aesthetic and functionally stuck in the year 2000. The founder, Craig Newmark, is a pretty weird person. The company has 50 employees and does not maximize profit. But Newmark and Craigslist have had a culturally huge impact. They destroyed the newspaper classifieds.
And yet Craigslist stays stuck in the year 2000. This was obvious to me when they went after Padmapper. Padmapper was clearly a service which added value to Craigslist. And yet today I wonder if this behavior by Craigslist actually allows it to continue providing the services it does.
Imagine that Craigslist opens up its API and all sorts of other web applications develop around it. What I can imagine is that Craigslist would become the locus of massive and highly efficient arbitrages. Consider programs which match buyers and sellers in a way which minimizes the “deals” that sellers can today gain from buyers who are naive. Perhaps instead of two people going into an exchange, an ecosystem of “runners” who would transport products.
My thoughts on this are vague and cloudy, but perhaps reduced efficiency and rationality actually means Craigslist can persist for far longer?
In Robert Heinlein’s uneven late work Friday the mentor of the protagonist mentions that because of a possible collapse of technological civilization he maintains a collection of paper books.
This crossed my mind when I saw that Storify is shutting down. Or Kevin Drum’s reflections on the changes in blogging.
I’ve put a lot of content out there over the years. Probably on the order of 5 million words across my blogs. Some publications here and there. Lots of tweets. But very little of it will persist into future generations. Digital is evanescent.
The explanation at the time was that people were moving conversations to Facebook. Today we would add Twitter and Reddit to the list of “culprits.”
But there’s another thing that is hard to ignore: about half the traffic that comes to this website is now on iOS or Android. That is, half the traffic to this domain is mobile.
I’m pretty sure that the nature of browsing content on a phone discourages the sorts of intense back & forth exchanges which were the bread & butter of comments sections of weblogs in the days of yore.
Because of what I have been provided by my employers over the last few years I’ve been working on a Macbook Pro. These are fine machines, but they have not converted me to being a convert to all things Apple. I have two machines with Ubuntu at home that I have no problem with using (one of them has a dual-boot where I have a copy of Windows which I use every six months or so to make sure that security updates are installed).
In any case, my current phone has been acting erratically over the past few weeks. Up until now I had been resisting getting a new phone because it wasn’t as if I really needed one…but when there is a jeopardy that your phone will decide to not boot up, one has to act.
So I was agonizing over the Samsung 8 or iPhone 8. I’ve had multiple Samsung’s before. And the Samsung 8 seemed fine. The flip side is that everyone in my office uses an iPhone 8, and I get crap for staying with Android. This is not a major issue…but I can’t lie, I’m curious about the iPhone.
In the end, I probably stayed with Android for one primary reason: people in the Apple ecosystem seem totally hostage to Apple. Upgrades are a total pain, and there are minor things I need to get fixed in regards to my Macbook Pro‘s OS which is going to require a “Genius.” The whole situation strikes me as farcical and not futuristic. I’d rather tinker with my Ubuntu distribution than wait in line at a crowded Mac store.
In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds: Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!
And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.
This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.
Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.
And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.
Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.
And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.
Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.
The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.
With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….
A few days ago I watched the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone(s). Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed…and I probably will stick with a Samsung. Of course, I know that the original iPhone was panned, and it created a whole sector and a lifestyle. We’re a bit jaded.
But this focus on lifestyle in the technology sector made me reflect on Peter Thiel’s techno-pessimism in the late 2000s, which prompted him to write Zero to One. I’m glad that the best and brightest are going to Silicon Valley in the 2010s, and not Wall Street as in the 2000s. They don’t do positive harm in my opinion, while they did in the 2000s by increasing risk and volatility. But Apple and Facebook seem to be about consumption rather than production. They don’t make us more efficient, effective, they don’t change our civilization in its bones.
There are worse places to be, but then I read that China is setting targets and goals in relation to moving from fossil fuels to electric cars. The Chinese make a lot of goals, and execution is often an issue. But they have aspirations. Do we?