Two Timely Stories from my Royal 10 Typewriter

I love old typewriters. My favourite is a 1917 Royal Typewriter 10, made by the Royal Typewriter Company of New York, New York. It is a beautiful piece of engineering, with intricate and mysterious mechanical connections that are revealed by two bevelled glass windows in each side. It was made in a factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Ian Fleming wrote his Bond books on a Royal. Ernest Hemingway also used one.

My Royal 10 is pretty beaten up. There are parts missing and it’s far from functional. But that only adds to its gravitas and charm. It sits beside me in a special place in my office as I write this on an Apple MacBook Pro, circa 2018 – two examples of technical elegance separated by a century. I suspect – though – that the MacBook won’t be on anyone’s desk in 2120.

Last week, I told you about the Lost Generation. If I had been part of that generation, I would probably be writing this on that typewriter.  Today, I wonder what other stories it might have to tell. With that, I’d like to pick up where I left off last week and share two stories that I like to believe lie buried in the Royal 10’s mechanical magnificence. I hope they are two stories that have something to relate to us in our current reality.

First, the Royal 10 was introduced in 1914, the start of World War 1. It was Royal’s first “upright” design and, along with the Underwood 5, it would become a trusted workhorse for many, including news reporters. Much of the coverage of the war, and later, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 – 1920, was probably hammered out on a Royal 10.

But here’s the interesting thing. The 10 represented a pinnacle of typewriter design. Other than cosmetic changes, the inner workings of typewriters didn’t change for decades after its introduction. That meant that most of the major developments of the next 20 years would also be written on a typewriter like the one that sits in my office.

As the world rolled out the ‘Teens and into the Twenties, my Royal was one of the few things that didn’t change. The double gut punch of a global war and a massive pandemic rocked the world back on its feet, but not for long. After a brief but deep recession in 1920 and 21, a global explosion of creativity and enterprise transformed everything. The Roarin’ Twenties ushered in technological revolutions on multiple fronts, including the automobile, aviation, movies, radio, telephones, electricity and medicine.

Society was radically transformed in the Twenties. Jazz and speakeasies flourished. Women marched for their rights. Culture was transformed by writers and artists that were both more liberal in their themes and more apt to criticize hypocrisy and greed. Art deco became the dominant design movement of the decade.

The story is this: after 6 years of devastation and destruction, the world entered 8 years of explosive creativity and change.

That brings me to the second story. The Royal Typewriter Company had to shift gears in 1940. The factory in Hartford no longer built typewriters. They began manufacturing machine guns, rifles, bullets, propellers and spare parts for airplane engines as part of American industry’s support of the war effort. They wouldn’t go back to building typewriters until September 1945.

You, like me, may have become tragically addicted to pandemic models that show the importance of flattening the curve. These models have one thing in common, a flat horizontal line that represents our current capacity to handle the crisis.

But is that line necessarily flat? Just like the Royal Company in 1940, industry is once again ramping up to defeat a common enemy. This time, it’s face masks instead of machine guns; ventilators instead of propellers. The output is different, but the motivation is the same: we can beat this thing.

Again, history may provide us a little perspective. In 1939, the US was the furthest thing imaginable away from being ready to go to war. General George Patton was given command of a unit of 325 tanks that were desperately in need of nuts and bolts in order to keep working. After unsuccessfully trying to order through official channels he ended up ordering from a Sears catalogue and paying for them himself. The American army was so short of equipment that it would borrow Good Humor ice cream trucks to stand in as tanks when they practiced military manoeuvres.

Despite this, by 1945, American industry had produced two-thirds of all the weapons and equipment used by the Allies to win the war. That happened because thousands of companies like the Royal Typewriter Company unified behind a common goal. Chief Executives worked for a $1.00 a year. Volunteer laborers worked double shifts. Factories retooled their production lines. Capacity expanded exponentially when it had to because it’s not a static flat line.

I think my Royal 10 is trying to tell me two things. One I need to remember going into this crisis, and one for when we eventually come out of it.

First, we can do amazing things in the face of incredible adversity when we have to. We just need a little time to be our best.

And secondly, humans tend to bounce higher when we’re on the rebound from adversity.

Social Network Nastiness is the New Normal

British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — he of “The Selfish Gene” Fame — was pondering recently on Twitter:

“Curious about Twitter nastiness. In conversation, we say ‘I don’t agree because…’ On Twitter, ‘you vile piece of shit’ replaces ‘because…’ Why? Has it escalated like loudness of talk in crowded room? Starts quiet but escalates till all yell to be heard. Nastier than thou?”

Dawkin’s hunch, which is fairly self-explanatory, makes sense. It aligns with my own suspicion that in a world of hyperbolic noise, we are increasingly becoming desensitized to “normal” and drawn to messaging that is “jagged” and polarized enough to go viral.

But Dawkin’s tweet prompted speculation on some other possible hypotheses, which he summarized in a follow-up tweet:

“Thanks for interesting responses. Many favour ‘road rage’ theory, a version of the ‘anonymity protects cowards’ theory. Some support my ‘Nastier than thou’ escalation theory, perhaps reinforced by (I hadn’t thought of this) hunger for Likes. But who likes nastiness & why?”

There is a third possibility that also emerged, a tribal “us” vs “them” chant where the tweets are a way for  tweeters to virtue signal to their tribe and, in the process, self-identify their position in the strongest possible terms.

At the end of the day, all these theories point out an interesting tipping point in social discourse: We are now doing it with some physical distance between participants, and we are doing it for an audience. Both of these factors can lead to social behaviors that are new for us.

Let’s begin with the question of distance.  Our most noble instincts were built on the foundation of proximity. Empathy and caring began as a tribal exercise. We came prewired with a hierarchy of humanity — a ranking of whom we care most about.

At the top are those we share the most DNA with. Next come those we share our time and physical space with. One rung down are those that look most like ourselves. Everybody else falls somewhere under that.

We are not locked into this hierarchy, but we have to understand that it is the hair-triggered reaction that naturally fires before our brain gets a chance to mindfully ponder what an appropriate behavior might be. Much as this may not be the “woke” thing to admit, we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging it.

That brings us to the “audience” part of the new normal: We now broadcast our beliefs to our social network. Much of what we do online is done for the benefit of our audience. And when we become “de-individualized” as part of a group, our behavior changes. We rely less on our individual belief of what is right or wrong and more on what we believe the social norms of the group define as acceptable. We are bonding with our tribe and seeking acceptance.

If you combine both these factors, you have an environment where it is not only okay to be nasty to someone, it’s expected and encouraged. We say and do things to people that would be abhorrent to us if we were face-to-face with them. All three of Dawkin’s proposed explanations can and do arise.

The most discouraging part is that this is a Pandora’s box now open. There is no closing it again. This is the new normal, the new standard for discourse and debate.  Behavior stripped of any innate instinct for face-to-face civility is setting the stage for elections, governance, public debate and ideological alignment. It is defining our laws, our media and our culture. It is now part of our society.

I don’t know where it will lead. I only know there is no turning back.

The View from the Other Side

After a life time in marketing I am now sitting on the other side of the table. Actually, I’m sitting on all sides of the table. In my newest venture it’s just me, so I have to do everything. And I don’t mind telling you I’m overwhelmed. These past few years have given me a whole new appreciation of how damned difficult it is to be a business owner. And my circumstances are probably better than 90% of others out there. This started as a hobby that – with surprisingly little direction from me – somehow grew into a business.  There

Is no real financial pressure on me. There are no sales numbers I have to hit. I have no investors to answer to. I have no debt to service. My business is very limited in scope.

But still – somehow – I feel like I’m drowning. I couldn’t imagine doing this if the stakes were higher

It’s Hard to Find the Time to Build a Better Mousetrap…

I’ve always been of the opinion that the core of the business and the marketing of that business should be inseparable. But as I’ve learned, that’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Marketing is a vast black hole that can suck up all your time. And in any business, there is just a lot of stuff that requires a lot of time to do. It requires even more time if you want to do it well. Something has to give. So what should that something be? That sounds trite, but it’s not.

Take me, for example. I decided to offer bike tours. Sound simple enough, right? I had no idea how many permits, licenses and authorizations I needed to have. That all takes time. And it was time I had to spend before I could do anything else.

Like I said, to do things well takes time. Businesses naturally have to evolve. Almost none of us gets it right out of the gate. We make mistakes and then have to figure out how not to make those mistakes again. This is good and natural. I believe a good business has to have a leader that sweats the details, because the details are where shit goes wrong. I’m a big picture guy but I’ve discovered that big pictures are actually a mosaic of a million little pieces that someone has to pay attention to. And that takes time.

The Fear of a Not Doing Everything Right Now

New companies used to have the luxury of time. No one expected them to hit the home run in their first year. Well, Google and Facebook screwed that up for everyone, didn’t they? We are now all supposed to operate within some ridiculously compressed timeline for success. Our business lives are all about rushing things to market, rapid iteration, agile development. And while we’re doing all that, we should also be keeping up with our Instagram posts and building a highly engaged online community. If we don’t successfully do all those things, we feel like we’ve failed.

I’m calling bullshit on that. Most studies done on this subject show the odds of survival for a new company lasting five years are somewhere between 40 and 50%. That’s not great, but I have to believe that given the coin toss survival rate, there are a lot of companies that may not have a fully optimized Facebook business page that have somehow managed to survive bankruptcy. And even the businesses that do wrap it up are not always financial failures. Many times it’s because the founder has just had enough.

I completely understand that. I started this busIness because I wanted to have fun. And while not many of us give that reason for starting a business, I don’t believe I’m the only one. If this isn’t fun, why the hell are we doing it? But juggling a zillion balls knowing that I’m guaranteed to drop many of them isn’t all that much fun. Each morning begins with a dropped ball inventory. It seems that business today is all about reactive triage. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What might kill me and what’s only going to hurt for a while?

I’d like to end this column with some pat advice, some strategy to deal with the inevitable inundation of stuff that is demanding your time. But I’m struggling. I believe it’s hidden somewhere between my two previous points – deal with what’s potentially fatal and try to have some fun. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

The Comfort of our Tribe

It was a shattering blow to the very heart of Canada. On Friday, April 6, on an intersection in Northern Saskatchewan, a semi truck slammed into the side of a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos, a junior hockey team. 16 people on that bus, including most of the team, are gone. We have been collectively staggered by the loss.

This column is not about the accident. This column is how we’ve dealt with the grief that came from it. It you want to get to the heart of Canada, there is no more direct route than through hockey. At least half the country has had sons and daughters that have also been on buses or vans, riding through the Canadian winter with their team on their way to a tournament. The horror of the Humboldt Broncos was personal because it was so easily imagined.

Three things are helping us through. And these three things show that no matter how technology may have influenced how we define community, when the worst happens, we need a much more primal definition of connection.

One – Tribes

Make no mistake, tribalism is alive and well in Canada. The boundaries of the tribes are defined by the hockey teams we root for. We love to wear tribal colors. We just call them hockey jerseys. But for one day, all tribes were united. On April 12, we all wore our jerseys, no matter the team colors, as a show of solidarity for those most directly impacted by the loss of the Humboldt Broncos. Teachers, students, bankers, lawyers, civic workers, nurses, doctors, bus drivers – it didn’t matter who we were or the categories we normally belong to. On that day, we were all part of the same tribe, united in the same goal. We were honoring the Humboldt Broncos.

https://globalnews.ca/video/embed/4141267/

Two – Totems

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where I live, we’re very familiar with totems. But if you’re not, a totem is “a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe.”

In Canada for the past few weeks, our totems have been hockey sticks. We left them on our front door step as a sign of remembrance. The symbolism was perfectly captured by a front door cam when a young boy came home, found the stick on his parents stoop, played with it for a while, then gently kissed it and placed it back. If you want to understand the primal power of a totem, take 44 seconds to watch this video.

Three – Togetherness

We may choose to grieve along, but we heal together. For Canada, as we came together, we adopted the team’s mantra – Humboldt Strong. We came together in arenas, churches, synagogues, parking lots and lobbies. It didn’t matter where. What mattered was that we were together – somewhere, anywhere – and the healing that came from us sharing the same space and the physicality of our grief.

Digital Connection may be efficient, but it’s not effective. It’s why you don’t log in to a Google Hang Out or a Facebook live feed for the funeral or the wedding of a loved one. You have to be there. You have to share. You have to connect – eye to eye and heart to heart. That’s how humans were built.

It’s how we – a nation in grief – are staying Humboldt Strong.

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.

The Case for Strong External Marketing Partnerships

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Sherry Turkle

We like to spend time with others that agree with what we have to say. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle says this leads to us living in a bubble – in this case – a bubble of agreement. While soothing to our own sensibilities, this can be a dangerous path to walk down. It leads to dangerous biases in perception like Group Think and Information Cascades. It doesn’t give us a true picture of what the world is really like.

Last week, I said that a shorter “sense-making” cycle is one reason why moving advertising and marketing in-house might be a better way to go. But what if those sense-making cycles lead to a skewed view of the world because of perceptual distortion? What if it leads to us seeing the world not as it is, but as we wish it was? Today, as promised, I want to look at the other side of the question – the advantages that can come from having strong external partnerships.

As I said last week, Bayesian Strategy relies on three principles:

  • Strategic planning is a continuous and iterative process
  • Strategic plans are nothing more than hypotheses that are then subject to validation through empirical data
  • The span of the loop between the setting of the strategic frame and the data that validates it should be kept as short as possible.

While moving more functions – including marketing – in-house helps with the last of these, it can lead to problems with the second step: Empirical Validation.

Prolonged ideological homogeneity is never a good thing. Yet human nature craves it. So, from Socrates on down, we have created rational frameworks that force us to consider divergent thoughts. Democracy is built on such a framework. But over time, most organizations naturally move towards a shared opinion of the world – and that opinion usually starts at the top. It’s what Avinash Kaushik calls the HIPPO Syndrome – The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

Agreement bubbles expand due to confirmation bias. Even if we pay lip service to validating our opinions with empirical data, what we count as data depends on what we believe. We look for evidence that confirms our beliefs. We can deny we do it, we can chastise ourselves for doing it, but the fact is, it’s human nature. In the end, we’ll still do it, because we’re programmed to do so.

One way to reliably poke our “agreement bubbles” is to build robust mechanisms to both encounter and embrace ideas from outside the bubble. Remember a few months ago, when I wrote that cultures in which higher percentages of atheists are found also tend to be more innovative? The same factors are at work here. Those cultures have more ideological divergence. More perspectives are considered. The result is almost always a more accurate view of the world. Everyone wants to believe they are “right”, but what is “right” – or as close as is possible – is a synthesis of many different opinions and beliefs.

In this case – especially with something as vital to strategy as marketing – a strong external partnership can force us to consider our agreement bubbles. This is where an agency can bring new views to the table. But the agency and the client have to realize that this is where the value of these partnerships lies. They have to embrace this role and build the trust required to introduce external perspectives into the strategic sense-making cycle.

With two sides of the argument now sketched out, we’ll look next week at how the agency partnership of the future might look.

The Future of the Workplace

I noticed a post a few weeks back that said many companies are abandoning their sprawling suburban campuses and are moving back to the city. I found this interesting, because where we work, like so many things in our lives, seems to be in the midst of disruption.

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Frederick Winslow Taylor

 

The psychology of the workplace is now a thing. It never used to be. In fact, my youngest daughter is focusing on exactly that as she pursues her post-grad thesis. In the Frederick Winslow Taylor induced hangover that most of corporate America has been trying to get over in the past several decades, workers were considered machinery. Which was a step forward. Prior to that, they were considered grist for the mill. At least Taylor recognized that well maintained machinery worked better than neglected machinery.

But there have been a significant number of studies looking at how the psychology of the individual contributes to the corporate bottom line. And some interesting paradoxes are emerging. Many of these deal with the nature of the workplace.

We used to think of all workplaces as factories. They were built where land was relatively cheap. This led to the whole concept of the suburban campus. But we spend a lot of time at work. We should be happy there. And our work life should not be out of sync with the rest of our lives. So being exiled to the corporate hinterlands of Blandeville, Connecticut or Nondescript, New Jersey may not fit very well with our life plans anymore. We want workplaces that are close to where we choose to live. We want an integrated work-life balance, not an artificially divided one.

The location of our office isn’t the only thing being disrupted. Should we even go to the office at all? Telecommuting has been explored as a viable option by a number of companies.

When I was CEO of my own company we tried our own telecommuting experiment. The rationale is pretty compelling: if you just need a computer and a connection to work, why bear the expense of all the trappings of a formal office? Additionally, it allowed us to recruit in cities where we didn’t have an office. Finally, there was little doubt the majority of our telecommuting employees were happier with the new arrangement.

For us as employers, however, the results were mixed. When our company was acquired, the new owners ended the telecommuting experiment. It was not a popular decision with our employees. I initially fought against it, but eventually, I came around and supported the requirement to share a physical space. This was a few years before Marissa Mayer brought the same hammer down on the telecommuting employees of Yahoo. The infamous memo was sent at Mayer’s behest by Yahoo’s Head of HR, Jackie Reses on February 22, 2013. Here is an excerpt that provides context for the decision:

“That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

We found the same thing. While employees loved telecommuting and were generally disciplined in ensuring we got full value from them, we missed the collaboration and creativity that comes from chance encounters and serendipitous discussions. One could make a strong argument that telecommuting might be more efficient in terms of productivity, but an increasing number of studies show that effectiveness is often sacrificed.

Like most things in the sphere of human behavior, I think the disruption of the workplace is subject to the pendulum effect. The starting point was the faceless beige cubicle satirized in Dilbert. As this started to change, we swung too far over to the other side, embracing the geographically unlimited possibilities of a connected workplace. But we found that something was sacrificed in the transition. The best answer likely falls somewhere between these two extremes.

I have talked before about the research done by MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland. He found that the most effective teams have two distinct phases they go through – exploration and engagement. Innovation and creativity comes from exploration. Productivity comes from engagement. I suspect that telecommuting might work well for engagement. But exploration requires some type of common ground – literally. For example, Pentland found something as simple as all employees taking coffee breaks at the same time lead to a significant increase in team effectiveness.

However the workplace may evolve in the future, I believe we’re learning that some essential element of teamwork still requires us being in the same place at the same time, or, as John F. Kennedy once said, “breathing the same air.”

 

 

 

Disruption 101

We Online Spinners are talking a lot about disruption. Dave Morgan has been talking about disruption in the Advertising and Marketing Technology space. I’ve been looking at disruption in other areas, including academia. Cory Treffiletti, Kaila Colbin, Maarten Albarda have all looked at various aspects of disruption. A quick look back at the past few months’ Spin columns show that well over half of them deal with disruption in one way or another.

Maybe it’s time we did a primer on the idea of disruption.

Disruption is what happens when something stable becomes unstable. That’s kind of a “duh..obviously” statement, but there are some very important concepts lurking in there.

When an environment is stable, it allows for the development of extensive but fragile ecosystems. In a corporate sense, this allows for the development of very complicated supply chains, with several “value niches” emerging along that chain. The more complicated the chain, the higher the potential for profit. Each link adds another level of complication, allowing for someone to be squeezing a little more profit from the end consumer.

In addition to extensive ecosystems, stable environments also allow some members of those ecosystems to achieve significant scale. Things are predictable and this allows organizations to grow, embed processes and systems, thereby improving efficiency and profitability. Often, one organization can establish itself at several levels along the supply chain, maximizing its profit potential.

In our physical world, stability is generally a by-product of friction. The higher the degree of friction – or what economist Ronald Coase called “transactional costs” – the more stable the market becomes. Barriers to entry are higher. Competitive factors are dampened. Capital becomes the main predictor of success.

Then – everything changes. We get hit with instability.

In our current case, we got hit with a double whammy: The disruption we’re experiencing is caused by the removal of friction. Technology is reducing transactional costs in a huge swath of industries.

Technology is an interesting catalyst. We think that technology changes behaviors. I don’t believe so. I think technology enables behaviors to change, in that it allows its users to do something they already wanted to do, but couldn’t because of some obstacle. It allows for an attractive alternative that didn’t previously exist. That technology is usually offered to the broadest base of users available and this triggers the disruption, which starts from the ground up. Typically, technology also removes the friction that enables those delicate hierarchal supply chains to form and flourish.

When the disruption begins and the incumbent ecosystem is threatened, the first casualties are the most fragile members of that ecosystem. These are usually the smaller niche players that rely on the bigger hosts that make up the ecosystem. The bigger hosts can survive longer and often swallow up the first casualties in an attempt to shore up their defenses. They will also often make a half-hearted attempt to respond to the disruption by adopting the technology and going after the disruptors. This never works. Disruption is not in their genetic make up. Their priority is always protecting the status quo, because that’s where their profit lies.

As disruption forever alters the environment, eventually the previous ecosystem withers and dies. A new (temporary) stability emerges – along with a new ecosystem – built on the foundation of the previous disruption and the entire cycle starts again.

The Face of Disruption

If you ask publishing giant Elsevier, Alexandra Elbakyan is a criminal – a pernicious pirate.

If you ask the Lifeboat Foundation, or blogger P.Z Myers, or millions of students around the world, Alexandra Elbakyan is a hero.

Labels can be tricky things, especially in a world of disruption.

ElboykanMs. Elbakyan certainly doesn’t look like a criminal. You would walk right past her on a campus quad and think nothing of it. She looks pretty much what you would expect a post-grad neuroscience student from Kazakhstan to look like.

But her face is the face of disruption. And she’s at the receiving end of a lawsuit launched by Elsevier that, if you were to take it seriously, would be worth several billion dollars.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column about the academic journal racket. The work of thousands of researchers is published by Elsevier and others and remains locked behind hugely expensive pay walls. Elbakyan, as a post-grad research student at a university that couldn’t afford to pay the licensing fees to gain access to these journals, got frustrated. In a letter she wrote in response to the lawsuit, she elaborated on this frustration:

“When I was a student in Kazakhstan University, I did not have access to any research papers. These papers I needed for my research project. Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them.”

Elbaykan was not alone in this piracy.

“Later I found there are lots and lots of researchers (not even students, but university researchers) just like me, especially in developing countries. They created online communities (forums) to solve this problem.”

“…to solve this problem.” There, in a nutshell, is the source of disruption. Elbakyan thought there had to be a more efficient way to facilitate this communal piracy and turned to technology, launching the Sci-Hub search portal in 2011. Depending on the donation of access keys from academics at institutions that had subscriptions to research publishers, Sci-Hub bypasses the paywall and locates the paper a researcher is looking for. It then delivers the paper and saves a copy for LibGen, a library of “pirated” papers that will continue to be freely available to future researchers. The LibGen database now has over 48 million papers available.

Is Elbaykan guilty of piracy? Absolutely – as it’s defined by the law. She makes no bones about the fact. She uses the term repeatedly in her own letter of defense.

But, in that letter, Alexandra Elbaykan also appeals to a higher law – the law of fairness. She is not stealing from the authors of that research, who receive no compensation for their work from the publisher. When Elsevier claims “irreparable harm” the only harm that can be identified is to their own business model. There is no harm to academics, who are becoming increasingly hostile to the business practices of publishers like Elsevier. There is certainly no harm to fellow researchers, who now have open access to knowledge, helping them in their own work. And there is no harm to the public, who can only benefit from the more open sharing of knowledge amongst academics. The only one hurt here is Elsevier.

According to RELX’s (the parent company of Elsevier) 2014 annual report, the company raked in £ 2,944 M ($4.23 billion US) from it’s various subscription businesses. The Scientific, Technical and Medical division (the same division that Elbaykan “irreparably harmed”) had revenues of £ 2,048 M ($2.94 B US) and a tidy little operating profit of £787 M ($ 1.13 B US).

Poor Elsevier.

The question that should be asked here is not whether Elsevier’s business model has been harmed, but rather, does it deserve to live? According to that same annual report, they “help scientists make new discoveries, lawyers win cases, doctors save lives and executives forge commercial relationships with their clients.”

Actually, no.

Elsevier does none of those things. The information they deal in does those things. And that same information is finding a way to be free, thanks to people like Alexandra Elbaykan. Elsevier is just the middleman who is being cut out of the supply chain through technology.

The American legal system will undoubtedly side with Elsevier. The law, as it is currently written, defends the right of a corporation to do business, whether or not people like you and me deem that business ethical. But ultimately, we rely on our laws to be fair, and what is fair depends on the context of our society. That context can be changed through the forces of disruption.

Sometimes, disruption comes in the guise of a young post grad student from Kazakhstan.

Is Amazon Creating a Personalized Store?

There was a brief Amazon-related flurry of speculation last week. Apparently, according to a podcast posted by Wharton, Amazon is planning on opening 300 to 400 bricks and mortar stores.

That’s right. Stores – actual buildings – with stuff in them.

What’s more, this has been “on the books” at Amazon for a while. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked by Charlie Rose in 2012 if they would every open physical stores. Bezos replied, ““We would love to, but only if we can have a truly differentiated idea,” he said. “We want to do something that is uniquely Amazon. We haven’t found it yet, but if we can find that idea … we would love to open physical stores.”

With that background, the speculation makes sense. If Amazon is pulling the trigger, they must have “found the idea.” So what might that idea be?

Amazon does have a test store in their own backyard of Seattle. What they have chosen to do there, in a footprint about the tenth of the size of the former Barnes and Noble store that was there, is present a “highly curated” store that caters to “local interests.”

Most of the speculation about the new Amazon experiment in “back-to-the-future” retail centers around potential new supply chain management technology or payment methods. But there was one quote from Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, that caught my attention; “she said that space represents ‘a test’ to see if Amazon can create ‘a new kind of experience’ using data analytics about customers’ preferences.”

This becomes interesting if we spend some time thinking about the purchase journey we typically take. What Amazon had done online brilliantly is remove friction from two steps in that journey: filtering options and conducting the actual transaction. For certain kinds of purchases, this is all we need. If we’re buying a product that doesn’t rely on tactile feedback, like a digital file or a book, Amazon has connected all the dots required to take us from awareness to purchase.

But that certainly doesn’t represent all potential purchases. That could be the reason that online purchases only represent 9% of all retail. There are many products that require an “experience” between the filtering of options available to us and the actual purchase. These things still require the human “touch” – literally. Up to now, Amazon has remained emotionally distant from these types of purchases. But perhaps a new type of retail location could change that.

Let me give you an example. If you’re a cyclist (like me) you probably have a favorite bike shop. Bike stores are not simply retail outlets. They are temples of bike worship. Bike shops are usually an independent business run by people who love to talk about their favorite rides, the latest bikes or pretty much anything to do with cycling. Going to a bike store is an experience.

But Trek, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world, also recognized the efficiency of the online model. In 2015, they announced the introduction of Trek Connect, their attempt to find a happy middle ground between practical efficiency and emotional experience. Through Trek Connect, you can configure and order your bike online, but pick it up and have it serviced at your local bike shop.

However, what Amazon may be proposing is not simply about the tactile requirements of certain types of purchases. What if Amazon could create a personalized real world shopping experience?

Right now, there is a gap between our online research and filtering activity and our real world experiential activity. Typically, we shortlist our candidates, gather required information, often in the form of a page printed off from a website, and head down to the nearest retail location. There, the hand off typically leaves a lot to be desired. We have to navigate a store layout that was certainly not designed with our immediate needs in mind. We have to explain what we want to a floor clerk who seems to have at least a thousand other things they’d rather be doing. And we are not guaranteed that what we’re looking for will even be in stock.

But what if Amazon could make the transition seamless? What if they could pick up all the signals from our online activity and create a physical “experiential bubble” for us when we visited the nearest Amazon retail outlet?

Let me go back to my bike purchasing analogy in way of an example. Let’s say I need a new bike because I’m taking up triathlons. Amazon knows this because my online activity has flagged me as an aspiring triathlete. They know where I live and they have a rich data set on my other interests, which includes my favored travel destinations. Amazon could take this data and, under the pretext of my picking up my bike, create a personalized in store experience for me, including a rich selection of potential add-on sales. With Amazon’s inventory and fulfillment prowess, it would be possible to merchandise a store especially for me.

I have no idea if this is what Amazon has “in store” for the future, but the possibility is tantalizing.

It may even make me like shopping.