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.




Luddites Unite…

Throw off the shackles of technology. Rediscover the true zen of analog pleasures!

The Hotchkisses had a tech-free Christmas holiday – mostly. The most popular activity around our home this year was adult coloring. Whodathunkit?

There were no electronic gadgets, wired home entertainment devices or addictive apps exchanged. No personal tech, no connected platforms, no internet of things (with one exception). There were small appliances, real books printed on real paper, various articles of clothing – including designer socks – and board games.

As I mentioned, I did give one techie gift, but with a totally practical intention. I gave everyone Tiles to keep track of the crap we keep losing with irritating regularity. Other than that, we were surprisingly low tech this year.

Look, I’m the last person in the world that could be considered a digital counter-revolutionary. I love tech. I eat, breathe and revel in stuff that causes my wife’s eyes to repeatedly roll. But this year – nada. Not once did I sit down with a Chinglish manual that told me “When the unit not work, press “C” and hold on until you hear (you should loose your hands after you hear each sound) “

This wasn’t part of any pre-ordained plan. We didn’t get together and decide to boycott tech this holiday. We were just technology fatigued.

Maybe it’s because technology is ceasing to be fun. Sometimes, it’s a real pain in the ass. It nags us. It causes us to fixate on stupid things. It beeps and blinks and points out our shortcomings. It can lull us into catatonic states for hours on end. And this year, we just said “Enough!” If I’m going to be catatonic, it’s going to be at the working end of a pencil crayon, trying to stay within the lines.

Even our holiday movie choice was anti-tech, in a weird kind of way. We, along with the rest of the world, went to see Star Wars, the Force Awakens. Yes, it’s a sci-fi movive, but no one is going to see this movie for its special effects or CGI gimcrackery. Like the best space opera entries, we want to get reacquainted with people in the story. The Force’s appeal is that it is a long-awaited (32 years!) family reunion. We want to see if Luke Skywalker got bald and fat, despite the force stirring within him.

I doubt that this is part of any sustained move away from tech. We are tech-dependent. But maybe that’s the point. It used to be that tech gadgets separated us from the herd. It made us look coolly nerdish and cutting edge. But when the whole world is wearing an iWatch, the way to assert your independence is to use a pocket watch. Or maybe a sundial.

And you know what else we discovered? Turning away from tech usually means you turn towards people. We played board games together – actual board games, with cards and dice and boards that were made of pasteboard, not integrated circuits. We were in the same room together. We actually talked to each other. It was a form of communication that – for once – didn’t involve keyboards, emojis or hashtags.

I know this was a fleeting anomaly. We’re already back to our regular tech-dependent habits, our hands nervously seeking the nearest connected device whenever we have a millisecond to spare.

But for a brief, disconnected moment, it was nice.

Why I’m (Cautiously) Optimistic About 2016

This will be my last column before the Christmas break. As such, I thought it was appropriate to end on a positive note.

It’s easy to believe the world is a stupid, cold and cruel place. We’ve been told as much by our leaders. On many days in our very recent memory, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t going to hell in a hand basket.

But all things are relative. And if we look at statistics alone, there’s a very good case to be made that, despite all the false steps we make, we’re actually heading in the right direction.

Take myself, for example. I was born in 1961. For some reason, here in North America, we tend to think of the 60’s as some sort of Golden Age. We wax nostalgic for a simpler, gentler, more virtuous time. There’s even a psychological name for it. It’s called rosy retrospection.

But the empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

For example, the average global life expectancy in 1961 was 55 years. Today, it’s 71 years. In North America, we’ve added 10 years to our life expectancy (from 68 to 78) in the last 5 decades. The biggest gains have been made in India, China, Brazil and South Korea.

Not only are we living longer. We’re living better. The Human Development Index is a measure of quality of life compiled by the United Nations. In 1961, the HDI for the countries of the OECD (the most developed countries in the world) was 0.48. In the poorest part of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa, it was 0.11. Today, the HDI for developed countries is 0.88. It’s 0.51 in Sub Saharan Africa. The empirical quality of life for the average Somalian is higher today than it would have been if you had lived in some of the richest countries in the world in 1961.

Almost everyone has more rights now than they did in 1961. This is certainly true for women, ethnic minorities and those of alternative sexual orientations. When I was born, only one third of the world’s population lived under some form of democracy. Today, that number is close to 50%. We have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way.

We have violence, but fewer people die of violent confrontations now than in any time in human history. Casualties due to warfare are way down, dropping from 250 deaths per million people in the 50’s to less than 10 per million in 2012. And while homicide rates per capita are a little higher than in 1961 (when they were at the lowest point in 40 years), they’ve been in decline since 1991 and getting close to where they were then.

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

We have hunger, but we’re winning. In the 60’s, for every 100,000 people on the planet, 500 died of famine. In the last decade, that dropped to 3 deaths in 100,000.

And our standard of living, along with our level of productivity, measured in normalized dollars, is over three times what it was 54 years ago.

Even the environment is trending in the right direction. Our air quality is better in major North American cities than it was in the 60’s. The EPA estimates there’s been a 63% decline in aggregate emissions of six common pollutants in the last three decades.

The world is a volatile place now. It was also a volatile place in 1961. The US sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion. East Germany put up the Berlin Wall. Millions died in China during the Great Leap forward. And the USSR test detonated a 50-megaton bomb – the largest explosion in human history. We were one year away from the Cuban Missile crisis. And two years away from JFK’s assassination.

My point, if it still seems to be vague, is that as flawed as we are, there is a strong statistical case to be made that we live in a better world than our parents and grandparents did. There is also reason to believe that our children will be smarter, kinder and more ethical than we are.

Humans fail forward. That’s our nature.  We screw things up, but we eventually fix them. We tear things apart so we can build them better the next time. If we look forward, we see that the world will never be perfect, but if we look behind us, we see we’re in a much better place than where we came from.

Welcome to the World of Wicked Problems

The World is becoming a wicked place. And not in the way you think (although that may be the case as well).

I’m referring to the explosion of wicked problems. Wicked problems are thorny, complex, dynamic problems that defy black and white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no – the answer always seems to be maybe. There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is “good enough – for now.”

I believe the ability to deal with wicked problems will be the single biggest factor in separating winners from losers in the future. Dealing with wicked problems requires a different tool set than the one we’ve always used in the past. It requires open, nimble minds. It requires the ability to break complexity into components that can yield individual insights, then synthesizing those insights together into a workable process. Most importantly, however, it requires a willingness to start all over again when that process is finally put in place. And you have to do that with a totally open mind; jettisoning any baggage you might be carrying from the past iteration. In short, it requires an approach I’ve referred to in the past as Bayesian Strategy.

A world full of wicked problems also requires a new kind of leadership. In the past, we wanted leaders who had all the answers. But in a world of wicked problems, there are no answers. In this world, we need leaders who understand the value of adaptability and iteration. Open minds are critical. Beliefs take a back seat to curiosity and imagination.

I’ve had a recent history of taking beliefs to task. Beliefs are cognitive short cuts we use to avoid thinking. In a fairly stable and predictable world, beliefs served a purpose. They are the intellectual equivalent of habits. If the same actions (or thoughts) always yield the same results, why bother with rational analysis? It’s a waste of energy. If we can predict what the end looks like, stopping to rationalize looks an awful lot like wavering or being indecisive.

But predictability is becoming increasingly rare. With wicked problems, we need to be willing to tear apart our view of the world and test it for validity. We need to unpack our beliefs and be willing to sacrifice them if empirical evidence shows them to be false. We need to introduce scientific rigor into our thought process.

This comes down to the difference between complexity and complication. Sending a man to the moon and sequencing the human genome were both complicated problems. Currently, climate change would fall into the same bucket. In each case, there was a lot to be done, but we knew what we had to do. We just needed to marshall the resources to do it. We could predict what the end would look like. This was a world where we needed unwavering leadership and a belief in a commonly understood end-state. To be successful, we just had to get sh*t done.

Creating a sustainable future for advertising and publishing are both complex problems. This makes them wicked. And they’re not alone. Wicked problems are emerging everywhere: educational reform, transportation infrastructures, global economic dynamics, national security, even the future of democracy. In each area, technology and its gravitational pull on society are dealing a handful of wild cards into the deck. We have no idea what success might look like. We are trying to find answers in a whirling, emergent environment, where rules are constantly in flux.

Here, we have to take a different approach. It’s not a straight line. It’s an endless loop.

This Message Brought to You by … Nobody

People talk about the digital revolution. I think it’s an apocalypse”
George Nimeh – What If There Was No Advertising? – TEDx Vienna 2015


A bigger part of my world is becoming ad-free. My TV viewing is probably 80% ad-free now. Same with my music listening. Together, that costs me about $20 per month. It’s a price I don’t mind paying.

But what if we push that to its logical extreme? What if we made the entire world ad-free? Various publications and ad-tech providers have posited that scenario. It’s actually interesting to see the two very different worlds that are conjectured, depending on what side of the church you happen to be sitting on. When that view comes from those in the ad biz, a WWA (World Without Advertising) is a post apocalyptic hell with ex-copywriters (of which I’m one) walking around as jobless zombies and the citizens of the world being squeezed penniless by exploding subscription rates. Our very society would crumble around our ears. And, for some reason, a WWA is always colored in various shades of desaturated grey, like Moscow circa 1982 or Apple’s Big Brother ad.

But those from outside our industry take a less alarming view of a WWA. This, they say, might actually work. It could be sustainable. It would probably be a more pleasant place.

adspendingLet’s do a smell test of the economics. According to eMarketer, the total ad-spend in the US for this year is $189 billion. That works out to just shy of $600 per year for each American, or $1550 for the average household. If we look at annual expenditures for the typical American family, that would put it somewhere between clothing and vehicle insurance. It would represent 2.8% of their total expenditures. A little steep, perhaps, but not out of the question.

Okay, you say. That’s fine for a rich country like the US. But what about the rest of the world? Glad you asked. The projected advertising spend worldwide – again according to eMarketer – is $592 billion, or about $84 for every single person on the planet. The average global income is about $10,000 per year. So, globally, eliminating advertising would take about 0.84% of your income. In other words, if you worked until January 3rd, you’d get to enjoy the rest of the year ad free!

So let’s say we agree that this is a price we’re willing to spend. What would an America without advertising look like? How would we support content providers, for example? Paying a few one-off subscriptions, like Netflix and Spotify, is not that big a deal, but if you multiply that by every potential content outlet, it quickly becomes unmanageable.

This could easily be managed by the converging technologies of personalization engines, digital content delivery, micro-payments and online payment solutions like ApplePay. Let’s imagine we have a digital wallet where we keep our content consumption budget. The wallet is a smart wallet, in that it knows our personal tastes and preferences. Each time we access content, it automatically pays the producer for it and tracks our budget to ensure we’re staying within preset guidelines. The ecosystem of this content marketplace would be complex, true, but the technology exists. And it can’t be any more complex than the current advertising marketplace.

A WWA would be a less cluttered and interruptive place. But would it also be a better place? Defendants of the ad biz generally say that advertising nets out as a plus for our society. It creates awareness of new products, builds appreciation for creativity and generally adds to our collective well-being.

I’m not so sure. I’ve mentioned before that I suspect advertising may be inherently evil. I know it persuades us to buy stuff we may desire, but certainly don’t need. I have no idea what our society would be like without advertising, but I have a hard time imagining we’d be worse off than we are now.

The biggest problem, I think, is the naiveté of this hypothetically ad-free world. Content will still have to be produced. And if the legitimized ad channel is removed, I suspect things will simply go underground. Content producers will be offered kickbacks to work commercial content into supposedly objective channels. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but I’d be willing to place a fairly large bet on the bendability of the morals of the marketing community.

Ultimately, it comes down to sustainability. Let’s not forget that about a third of all Americans are using ad blockers, and that percentage is rising rapidly. When I test the ideological waters of the people whose opinions I trust, there is no good news for the current advertising ecosystem. We all agree that advertising is in bad shape. It’s just the severity of the prognosis that differs – ranging from a chronic but gradual debilitating condition to the land of walking dead. A world without advertising may be tough to imagine, but a world that continues to prop up the existing model is even more unlikely.


Giving Thanks for The Law of Accelerating Returns

For the past few months, I’ve been diving into the world of show programming again, helping MediaPost put together the upcoming Email Insider Summit up in Park City. One of the keynotes for the Summit, delivered by Charles W. Swift, VP of Strategy and Marketing Operations for Hearst Magazines, is going to tackle a big question, “How do companies keep up with the ever accelerating rate of change of our culture?”

After an initial call with Swift, I did some homework and reacquainted myself with Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Shortly after, I had to stop because my brain hurt. Now, I would like to pass that unique experience along to you.

In an interview that is now 12 years old, Kurzweil explained the concept, using biological evolution as an analogy. I’ll try to make this fast. Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. The very first life appeared about 3.8 billion years ago. It took another 1.7 billion years for multicellular life to appear. Then, about 1.2 billion years later, we had something called the Cambrian Explosion. This was really when the diversity of life we recognize today started. If you’ve been keeping track, you know that it took the earth 4.1 of it’s 4.6 billion year history, or about 90% of the time since the earth was formed, to produce complex life forms of any kind.

Things started to move much quicker at that point. Amphibians and reptiles appeared about 350 million years ago, dinosaurs appeared 225 million years ago, mammals 200 million years ago, dinosaurs disappeared about 70 million years ago, the first great apes appeared about 15 million years ago and we homo sapiens have only been around for 200,000 years or so. And, as a species, we really have only made much of dent in the world in the last 10,000 years of our history. In the entire history of the world, that represents a very tiny 0.00022% slice. But consider how much the world has changed in that 10,000 years.

Accelerating Returns

Kurzweil’s Law says that, like biology, technology also evolves exponentially. It took us a very long time to do much of anything at all. The wheel, stone tools and fire took us tens of thousands of years to figure out. But now, technological paradigms shifts happen in decades or less. And the pace keeps accelerating. The Law of Accelerating Returns states that in the first 20 years of the 21st century, we’ll have progressed as much as we did during the entire 20th century. Then we’ll double that progress again by 2034, and double it once more by 2041.

Let me put this in perspective. At this rate, if my youngest daughter – born in 1995 – lives to be 100 (not an unlikely forecast), she will see more technological change in her life than in previous 20,000 years of human history!

This is one of those things we probably don’t think about because, frankly, it’s really hard to wrap your head around this. The math shows why predictability is flying out the window and why we have to get comfortable reacting to the unexpected. It would also be easy to dismiss it, but Kurzweil’s concepts are sound. Evolution does accelerate exponentially, as has our rate of technological advancement. Unless the later showed a dramatic reversal or slowing down, the future will move much much faster than we can possibly imagine.

The reason change accelerates is that the technology we develop today builds the foundations required for the technological leaps that will happen tomorrow. Agriculture set the stage for industry. Industry enabled electricity. Electricity made digital technology possible. Digital technology enables nanotechnology. And so on. Each advancement sets the stage for the next, and we progress from stage to stage more rapidly each time.

So, for your extended long weekend, if you’re sitting in a turkey-induced tryptophan daze and there’s no game on, try wrapping your head around The Law of Accelerating Returns.

Happy Thanksgiving. You’re welcome.