Saturday, February 10, 2018

Anatomy of the tech giants: an entrepreneur's take on FAGA

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and GoogleThe Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway is a serial entrepreneur, now running a company that advises businesses on how to succeed against the subjects of his book - four seemingly unstoppable tech giants. He also teaches, and it's easy to imagine much of the book being loosely adapted either from slick presentations to his business customers or lecture notes to his students.

That said, I had a better impression of the book by the end than I feared at the start. Galloway has an offputting 'down with the kids' style, throwing in the odd obscenity for emphasis every few pages - like he's trying to make me relate to him as a chum rather than an expert or teacher.

There's a certain amount of familiar stuff about just how successful Google and co actually are: "Amazon is building the most robust logistics infrastructure in history"; "If size matters (it does), Facebook may be the most successful thing in the history of humankind"; Apple enjoys "gargantuan profit and luxury margins at the scale of a low-cost producer".

When you've got through that, Galloway sets out his stall with some neat, Powerpointy characterisations of each of his four companies: Google is a religion (it's omniscient, like God); Apple sells luxury; Facebook offers human connection (it 'appeals to the heart'); and Amazon satisfies our hunter-gatherer instinct. It's provocative and you're challenged to think how it can't really be as simple as that.

I was more interested in Galloway's ideas about what the four have in common. For instance, he says all great companies needs a story that people can believe in. And "the best storyteller of our age, sans maybe Steven Spielberg" is Jeff Bezos. He's persuaded investors that Amazon doesn't need to make profits and that it should spend their money on crazy-sounding projects ("including a flying warehouse or systems that protect drones from bow and arrow. They’ve filed patents for both"). Amazon shareholders "love these stories; it makes them feel like they’re part of an exciting adventure".

More broadly, story-telling shades into image-building, where being a company that everyone likes (starting with Google's child-like logo) is important both commercially and politically, the latter even more so as these giants become increasingly entangled with regulators. Galloway characterises a formula within the companies that acts as a kind of shield against images of what they really are: "foster a progressive brand among leadership, embrace multi-culturalism, run the whole place on renewable energy - but, meanwhile, pursue a Darwinian, rapacious path to profits and ignore the job destruction taking place at your hands every day".

Then there's vertical integration: that means being able to control every aspect of your customers' dealings with you. It explains Apple's opening of retail stores, against the grain for tech companies which otherwise saw 'bricks and mortar' as old-fashioned and inefficient. Amazon, similarly, controls the whole experience, even inviting third party sellers to keep their products in Amazon warehouses and pay Amazon to pack and deliver them.

Galloway has an interesting take on 'the death of the brand': on Amazon, you're just looking at prices, a picture or two and customer reviews. Heavy spending on ads to build an image is increasingly ineffective, and as Amazon evolves, that trend will be accentuated: "death, for brands, has a name … Alexa."

The final part of the book is odd: it's advice to young people about how to manage their careers in the world he's just described. At least, that's the justification for some home truths such as "it’s never been a better time to be exceptional, or a worse time to be average" and "don’t follow your passion, follow your talent. Determine what you are good at (early), and commit to becoming great at it."

I had a suspicion that the word count wasn't quite up to what was needed and that Galloway turned to some of his teaching notes to fill in. It's all interesting stuff, but perhaps not quite what was on the tin.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

What a shame: Jon Ronson’s tour of the shamed and shamers

So You've Been Publicly ShamedSo You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Published in 2015, this book is already quite old in internet terms. Many of the controversies examined in it are long forgotten, except, no doubt, by the unfortunate people at the centre of them.

But its theme, the power of social media to polarise opinion and turn an unintended remark into the focus of an angry public debate, remains as relevant as ever.

Indeed, that effect now seems a microcosm of bigger social divisions that make our collective ability to handle difficult decisions increasingly tricky, or (the US government happens to be closing down today) impossible. Whether social media is the cause or a symptom of that larger phenomenon, who knows?

I’d never read a book by Ronson before but I recognised his style as a British version of Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell and any number of American writer/reporters who tell stories by taking their readers on a ‘journey’ as they recount in a breezy, intelligent style what they found and how they found it.

The paperback edition is plastered with ecstatic reviews, which may have put me off because they promise the book is “incredibly funny”, “amusing” or “very funny”.

I didn’t find it funny but I was impressed with Ronson’s ability to gain access to his subjects, all of whom had had experiences that might make them press delete on any email that begins “I’m a writer and I’m hoping to ask you about your recent humiliating experience of finding yourself in the public eye and the terrible consequences that followed.”

Ronson calls what happened to these people ‘being publicly shamed’, but I’m not convinced that ‘shaming’ is a broad enough term for the range of cases he studies. There’s the PR woman from New York who tweeted what she had intended to be an ironic comment about Africa and AIDS. As she flew to South Africa a global storm gathered to pillory her for being racist. Does ‘being publicly shamed’ cover her case, when her line on it, which Ronson accepts, is that her little joke was misinterpreted?

Since Ronson is in the same game as some of his subjects, the book is constantly in danger of crossing the line into self-examination. One of Ronson’s subjects, Jonah Lehrer, a fellow writer of popular non-fiction books, was found by another journalist to have made up some quotes from Bob Dylan. Ronson tells us about his meeting with both of them. He is asked by Lehrer to take a look at Lehrer’s proposed public apology for his Dylan transgressions, putting him uncomfortably close to being part of the story himself – especially because that apology went horribly wrong.

Then there’s the account of how an early, pre-publication draft of the book somehow got muddled up with the published version on social media. The draft included a passage which someone interpreted as equating rape with a man’s experience of being fired. Ronson had cut the line from the book before it was published because of the danger of that very misinterpretation. And the draft had been sent out under the heading ‘Not for quotation’. But when Ronson tried to explain all that on Twitter, it didn’t cut much ice: “you should never have thought it,” he was told. It’s a tough old world.

Some of Ronson’s work on the history and background to the phenomenon are among the most interesting parts of the book. I particularly enjoyed his debunking of the famous Zimbardo prison experiment which purported to demonstrate that anyone can be turned into a sadistic prison guard just by being put in a team that’s asked to play the guards rather than the volunteers who are asked to play the part of prisoners.

Ronson finds that the sensational deductions drawn from the experiment hinged largely on the performance of one particular volunteer, Dave Eshelman. Ronson tracks him down (he now “runs a home loan company in Saratoga, California”) and Eshelman tells him that at the time of the experiment he’d just seen the movie Cool Hand Luke about a sadistic prison warden. When nothing much happened during the first night of the experiment, Eshelman realised the psychologists were going to be disappointed: “I thought ‘someone is spending a lot of money to put this thing on and they’re not getting any results’. So I thought I’d get some action going.” So maybe it’s not true that human beings are as susceptible to the roles they’re given as conventional wisdom suggests.

This is a compelling, highly readable account of a wonderfully human phenomenon. Its attraction to readers may overlap a little with the voyeuristic thrills that draw social media users to the people in trouble that Ronson is writing about. But Ronson has an answer to that: he’s writing about “us” – the condemning, judgemental public who enjoy nothing more than joining in cruel, self-righteous shamings. It’s not other people you should be deploring: it’s us.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Let's see a final improvement to the Stag Brewery plans: more public space by the river

There's no question that the plans shown this week for the development of the Stag Brewery site in Mortlake are an improvement on those shown in the previous exhibition in March.

Housing density has been reduced somewhat, public areas between the housing blocks are a bit wider and the proposed tower block - previously described to me as the "visual flagship" of the development - has been scrapped.

I was impressed by the ingenious plan for a large underground car park - which will have space for 750 cars. Proposed restrictions on where those cars will be allowed to turn at its two entrances and exits will, in theory, prevent additional traffic using the mini-roundabout at the end of Sheen Lane.

But there's one further improvement which I think local residents would appreciate for generations to come. It only involves, for the developers, a small sacrifice of the end of one of the housing blocks, neatly bringing it into line with one next to it.

The square I've highlighted in red would be the housing that would go. The result (picture below) would be the creation of a much larger public space open to the river by joining together two smaller proposed spaces:

The above is taken from the previous development proposals. The new housing blocks are arranged a little differently in the current plans but those changes do not affect this proposal - which would create a really good-sized open area by the river.

I would encourage local residents to lobby for this change. Once the plans are accepted, public access to the river is never likely to become available again.


I've now been able to download the new proposals and show how my suggestion still applies in the new design: