Tag Archives: technology

A very brief history of stock photography: from fake studio models to authentic backyard scenes

When a brand chooses a stock photograph to represent their desired public image, they’re faced with a “style” problem. The brilliant artist Chuck Close summarized the problem of photographic style like this:

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”

Having a signature style is the essence of branding. When a marketing department develops creative ads for their brand, they want to distill their style into an image, while showing off the best qualities of their products or services.

Companies rely on stock photography to shape their image, because as Close pointed out, finding a signature style with photography is difficult. Creative stock photographs are shot by freelance artists and can be bought from online agencies like Getty, Alamy, Shutterstock and more.

In the early days of digital stock photography, the aesthetic of the pictures was quite different than it is today. Take a look at this historical capture of the Getty Creative Images website from July, 2004 (via archive.org)

An example of old stock photography - Getty Images homepage in 2004.

What stands out about this picture? It doesn’t seem very realistic, does it? The model is placed on a pure white background under studio lighting, she’s looking at the camera, holding a pose, her hair and makeup are professionally styled. Not exactly the kind of scene the average consumer comes across in their daily life.

This type of staged, made-up picture is all to familiar. From around the 1980’s until fairly recently, it was common for businesses to use terrible pictures of this style. They showed random people dressed up in suits and ties, pointing at laptops together or high-fiving. Occasionally they tried more conceptual ideas and fell flat, like this example:

a really terrible stock photograph of a guy holding a corndog

Today, stock photographs of people are quite different. Here’s a look at the modern Getty Creative Images website, as it is in February 2018:

The Getty Creative Images page in 2018.

The first difference you might notice is how much more natural the people appear. They are photographed outdoors, in daylight, with a real landscape behind them. They don’t look like professional models, they look like your friends & family. They’re doing things people do in their day-to-day lives: chewing gum, tossing a snowball, and gazing up at the sky.

Why has the style of creative stock imagery changed so much?

Between 2005 and 2007, two things had a major impact on photography: social websites like Flickr.com, and the Apple iPhone. The iPhone’s contribution was saturating the world with more pictures than had ever been taken before. Within a few years, the iPhone was the most popular camera on the planet. Flickr’s effect was to make photography more democratic. Everyone who could take a picture could also instantly share it with the whole world.

The result of these paradigm shifts was a move in the stock photography industry towards what editors, photographers, and buyers now recognize as conceptual realism.

In their 2018 Trends report, the editors of Getty Images highlighted this important idea:

“Attainability and relatability are key when connecting with today’s consumer, with authentic lifestyle storytelling the main vehicle. As the dance of technology and artistry continues, we will see a continued evolution of conceptual ideas merged with realism”

Because Flickr and the iPhone made taking and sharing photographs so much easier, the cultural visual vocabulary has changed drastically – but not everyone has caught up yet.

Here is an example of two modern brands competing in the same industry. One of them has adapted to the changes in what consumers expect from creative imagery, and the other is still working on it – Ace Hotel and Hilton Worldwide.


stock photography as seen on the Ace Hotels website

In the Ace Hotel website, the imagery appears attainable & relatable. In Chicago, people are jumping in a lake, and in Portland, bicycling across a bridge – casual, easy activities. A viewer might recognize the use of popular photo filters from Instagram, and the artistic lens flares in the Palm Springs picture.

stock photography seen on Hilton Hotel website

The Hilton Hotels website is speaking a very different visual language, that calls back to a more contrived aesthetic. Razor sharp focus, and crystal clear blue color on a perfect, calm ocean. This is an image of the “ideal life” that Hilton wants their brand to represent. It looks like paradise, but does it elicit emotion? Is it authentic?

What does authenticity look like in a stock photograph?

Even when a brand is striving to represent a visual wonderland like a beautiful beach, authenticity in the image is key to connecting with the audience. Getty Images is bursting with available stock photography that could make the Hilton beach scene more relatable and attainable.

Here are two examples where a different perspective – the beach as seen by someone sitting on it, or by a group of friends playing a game – can change the values of what the brand is offering.

A realistic stock photo of a beautiful beach

Example of authentic stock photography - a group of people playing on a beach

These images do a better job capturing what is being recognized as the key to successful brand images: “connecting with today’s consumer with authentic lifestyle storytelling.”

While these photos use the visual vocabulary of authenticity, the concept itself can still be ambiguous. Already some photographers have found that “authenticity” isn’t difficult to artificially create. On social platforms like Instagram, the #liveauthentic hashtag has become so popular that its meaning can be lost entirely. A Bloomberg reporter used fabricated “lifestyle” images of himself to gain a following and capitalize on his purchased popularity in an exposé on the subject.

When brands use stock photography to represent themselves, it’s important to keep up with visual trends, but there is a delicate balance between blindly jumping on a bandwagon and finding images that truly represent their values.

 

 

*ed. note – this post was written for a digital marketing class at the Georgetown University S.C.S. 

If you want to know about SEO, I’ve always been the wrong person to ask

What do I know about SEO?  Lynda.com Logo

I started this blog, “Brian Writing,” ten years ago as an assignment in my undergraduate English program. I’ve continued writing posts occasionally since then, sometimes more frequently than others. In all that time, I have never tried doing anything about my blog’s SEO – the one thing that might help people actually find me. I always assumed the internet elves that live behind the digital curtain would take care of it for me.

That’s all changing, now! This week I watched a course on Lynda.com called SEO Foundations, taught by instructor David Booth. For anyone who enjoys writing a blog but has never gotten into the messy details of finding an audience for it, learning about SEO is critical. I recommend checking out the course or finding other ways to learn about SEO.

In a nutshell, Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is way to help search engines like Google and Bing find your web content and show it to people who are searching for topics that you’ve written about. If you have a website about Mexican pastries, but you haven’t optimized it for search engines, the next time someone Googles “Mexican Pastry blog” they will have a difficult time finding you.

“Search Engine Optimization is a process that requires a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of patience.” – Lynda.com SEO Foundations Course

The Lynda.com course is divided into ten sections, which include topics such as keywords, content optimization, link-building strategies, measuring SEO effectiveness, and more. Each of these topics covers an area of SEO that can enhance your website’s discoverability. At the start, a helpful introduction to SEO kicks things off by answering basic questions about setting expectations for what SEO can accomplish, and how it affects your business or website. You can watch the entire course in just a few hours.

A screenshot of the SEO Foundations course on Lynda.com

Lynda.com SEO Foundations Course

The concept of keywords could be the most important concept to learn in researching SEO. On the surface, it is pretty simple to understand: a “keyword” is the term that someone enters into a web search engine like Google. As most everyone has experienced, the more specific the keyword is, the more relevant the search results become.

Pinpointing some of these specific terms that are frequently used by searchers and incorporating them into the content on your website can put you on the path to discoverability. Specific parts of a webpage benefit from having keywords included: headings, URLs and meta-tags with keywords all increase search engine visibility.

From the perspective of content optimization, the course suggests using the website www.schema.org as a resource for formatting content in a very search-engine-friendly way. Schema.org offers frameworks for formatting different types of content so they are recognizable by search engines. For example, if your blog post includes a recipe, using content tags from schema.org can help Google identify the post as a recipe and display it as such.

Keywords and content optimization is just the beginning.

Building the right inbound and outbound links into your pages, planning your long-term content strategy with an editorial calendar, and measuring the performance of your SEO efforts are all important pieces of the puzzle.

I have spent years blogging on a whim without much consideration for developing a “target audience,” so at first, these concepts seemed a bit intrusive to my creative process. Instead of just writing about whatever I want and posting it, SEO suggests being more deliberate about creating content that is relevant to a specific audience & easily searchable.

The first step to reconciling these different attitudes is to learn about what SEO actually is, and the Lynda.com SEO Foundations course is a great place to start.

 

*ed. note – this post was written for a digital marketing class at the Georgetown University S.C.S. 

What’s that got to do with the price of ads in Russia?

I’ve been reading comments on articles about the Russian intelligence effort to influence the US election by social media subterfuge. I know this is a dumb idea. It directly goes against Matt Groening’s advice: “No matter how good the video on YouTube is, don’t read the comments, just don’t, because it will make you hate all humans.”

But, against my better judgment, I’ve come across an argument a few times that I want to discuss. It goes something like this:

“Clinton and Trump spent $81M dollars on Facebook ads, but we’re supposed to believe that Russia spending just $46K made an impact? Yeah right, libtards, har har
har.”

Fair enough. The candidates spent a butt-load more money than the Russians did, as they should have. The basis of the argument is real: Facebook’s lawyers came right out and testified those exact numbers to Congress. It would be naive to argue equality of effort.

But if we permit ourselves some historical context, I think it’s worthwhile to come up with an analogy for Russia’s long game.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of small change vs. big money:

In 1997, Amazon was a baby with a market capitalization of less than $1B.

The year before that, KMart and Sears were two different companies that had a combined market cap sixty times larger than Amazon’s, each around $30B.

Where are we now, 20 years down the road?

KMart went bankrupt, restructured, and ended up merging with Sears in 2004. The consolidated Sears Holding Company hasn’t done much better, now posting a market cap of about a half-billion. Yawn.

And Amazon, the little company that wasn’t even in the Fortune 500 twenty years ago, while Sears and KMart were the 800lb gorillas… what happened to that scrappy bookseller?

Amazon’s market cap in 2017 is FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE BILLION DOLLARS.

That’s 535x more than what was once the ‘real thing.’

What does a story of retail market capitalization have to do with the price of Facebook ads in Russia?

Nothing, if you aren’t willing to think about it. But if you are, it’s just one example of many that prove looking at investments over the long haul is how you measure success – not analyzing them a few months later.

I’m willing to bet that Russia didn’t spend $46K with the expectation that in six months their effort would be complete. Isn’t it more likely they were spending $46K to find out what would be possible in six YEARS, or longer?

So, you can make the argument that a hostile foreign government spending a few thousand dollars on divisive Facebook ads in 2016 isn’t a big deal, because hey, the actual candidates spent way more than that.

Or you can remember those people who in 1997 said “Oh, Amazon isn’t very big, nothing to worry about. Sears and KMart are where we should invest!”

I could be stretching the comparison beyond its merit, but honestly, this story makes me nervous.

What kind of money does Russia have to spend for people to take them seriously? What if in the next election they spend $500K? $1M? $5M? At that point, could it be too late to undo the damage?

If Facebook and others don’t address this problem now, where are we going to be in 20 years?

Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss: The Internet as ArtMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this after hearing the author on the Recode Media podcast and reading some of her shorter pieces in the Times over the years. There’s a lot to think about in Magic & Loss – I enjoyed the lucid language and often insightful commentary. The homage to the death of the telephone was wonderful, and the quick take on ‘science’ writing in the mainstream media was funny – but there were also a share of flimsy moments (did she really just try to summarize a billion photographs on Flickr by talking about the style of two users?) I found myself occasionally waiting for more substantive technical discussion (maybe I’m conditioned to expect it in any writing about the internet) but I guess the ‘internet as art’ premise doesn’t leave room for grubby engineering stuff. Unfortunately, the end of the book veered into esoteric academia. It’s impressive to see someone versed as equally in obscure Youtube clips as they are in Wittgenstein, but wrapping the book’s closing chapters in personal academic history (something about Tweeting to a physics professor?) left me feeling disconnected. I may eventually give this book another try, but next time I’ll go for the text (instead of the audiobook) so I can pause and follow up on the many arcane references.

on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

– The End of Absence 

ICYMI

I can sense the ‘cycle’ of news media as this rotating blob, tucked just inside a massive doorway, and the moment one tries to step away from it, a persistent wind continues pushing it closer and closer.

It’s unavoidable – even consciously trying to decide that I’m not ready to jump back in after a break, I can’t go anywhere without incidentally grazing the ‘rotating media blob’. I visualize it like Slimer from Ghostbusters, or the big ancient space portal in Stargate – in the case of Slimer, you’re not going to outrun it – and in the case of Stargate, you’ve gotta step through, just because it’s there.

In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, CNN blares the sound of gunshots in Paris. At home, my dormant iPad pushes alerts of Academy Award nominations; newspapers collect at the front door, and restaurants everywhere are painted with televisions that shower everyone passing by with what’s ‘happening.’

Picture of Slimer

Slimer

On the last day of my recent vacation an article was sent to me describing the ‘In Case You Missed It’ (ICYMI) phenomenon and how it has become a kind of permanent purgatory for modern information consumers (anyone in the world with a phone or laptop.)  (“The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World,” John Holcroft, NYT)

Looking at the concept from the distance of having spent seven days alternating between a black sand beach and the cloudy rainforest, I could relate to the feeling of an itch that I had ‘missed something,’ but I felt no urgency or responsibility to catch up. It seemed that ICYMI only matters if you’re already ‘locked in.’

Each time the media blob brushes against my sleeve as I try to pass by it, I know that once I fully submit to the cycle, I’ll be pulled back in, and things will start to ‘matter’ again. Far away political events, trivial details of the intellectual arts, and incomprehensible fractions of data concerning the world economy will all congeal and form an awkward, incalculable load balanced across my knuckles as they hunch over their keyboard habitat.

It felt wonderful for just a few days to leave that all behind, and to truly participate in the real world and people who are actually present – instead of expending mountains of energy trying to ‘catch up’ on everything I’m ‘missing.’

on The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room [Motion picture]. (2005).

This film nicely wrapped up what was a very complicated story. As the scandal took place, uncovering the important pieces of the narrative was difficult because they were competing with everything else in the daily news information deluge. Letting a few years pass and waiting for the dust to settle makes stepping back and taking the 10,000 foot view easier.

When Enron was originally in the news I didn’t have any sense of the great impact that company shareholders suffered, and I didn’t understand what a celebrated and ‘accomplished’ company it had been shortly before the scandal broke out. Being a high school student in 2001, I wasn’t as tuned in as I would be if something like this happened now, so I appreciate the deep-dive explanation of what really happened.

I am proud that investigative reporting was one of the catalysts for uncovering the story. At a time when many people think the media is suffering, news is biased, and technology has rendered newspapers and magazines obsolete – this scandal was ultimately uncovered because a lone reporter asked a few tough questions. A lone female reporter at that, who not was not only dealing with a very ‘macho’ culture at Enron, but also didn’t have very much career experience before breaking the story.

Energy is a form of technology, and that’s what Enron sold – but this didn’t feel like a story about technology. The company’s trouble mostly came from accounting practices, limiting the supply of their product and creating false demand to raise prices. This could happen with any industry that serves a basic need to the population – auto makers, communication services, airline industries, etc.

It raises the question (although it was seemingly answered for energy long ago) at what point does a technology, or a technology market, become regulable? There are probably actual definitions of this, but I’ve never thought about it before. Energy became regulable a long time ago, and now the internet is approaching that same threshold – but does it meet the same criteria?

How would this story be different if Enron were a broadband provider? I don’t know if they would have been held to the same ethical standards, since unlike energy, broadband hasn’t yet been defined as critical to the functioning of everyday life in American society.

The film presents the notion that Enron only attempted these unethical actions because they believed they were ‘smarter’ than the regulators, and that being smarter gave them permission to break the rules. Is this any different from the idea that ‘code is law,’ and whatever code someone is smart enough to come up with gives the coder permission to circumvent legality?

Two Documentaries on ‘Hacking’

BBC – How Hackers Changed the World

While Anonymous was given most of the treatment in this piece, I didn’t feel like their story was the strongest thread in the overall hacker narrative. Lulzsec appears to be the group that did the most actual damage, while WikiLeaks is the most ethically challenging.

Anonymous comes across as a bunch of people posting on message boards who all showed up to protest the Church of Scientology once. Occasionally they were able to DDoS some government websites. They are presented as being large and formidable because allegedly ten thousand people participated in the Scientology demonstrations – but 10k isn’t that much, in the grand scheme. Ten thousand people shop at the Gap, ride the metro, buy a hot dog, blah blah every day. Boring and mundane stuff also attracts many people. Crowds don’t predicate meaning or importance.

Lulzsec on the other hand appeared to be able to cause more disruption with a much smaller and more focused group. Anonymous appeared to be too large to manage any kind of cohesive campaign, and the premise that it could operate without leadership doesn’t really have a historical precedent – anarchistic groups or societies have not accomplished much in the world, compared to groups with leaders and structure.

Discovery Channel – Secret History of Hacking

I think the order in which I watched these two documentaries made a difference in how I reacted to them. Watching the BBC doc first, and being exposed to Anonymous before Wozniak & Cap’n Crunch, had a different effect than if I would have reversed the order. I think I had less sympathy for Anonymous’s cause without the historical context of hackers that came before them.

The hackers of earlier decades, who began with ‘phone phreaking’ seemed to have a more innocent purpose. In the BBC doc, hearing the stories of Anon and Lulzsec and Wikileaks, I didn’t detect any of the harmless and curious aim that the original hackers had.

The earlier hackers also seemed to push the technology further. They subverted the intended use of the technology in a way that was unprecedented. Instead of disrupting or harming the way other people used it, they just found a way to use it more freely themselves. They were apolitical.

One interesting moment came when an early hacker spoke on the initial perception of computers – ‘why would anyone want one of these in their house?’ seemed to be the original sentiment, back in the 70’s when computers were large and not very powerful. It makes me wonder what technology is in its infancy today, that people are having the same reaction to. 3D printers? Self-driving cars? Google Glass? What else are people shunning for its perceived uselessness, that might someday dominate markets?

on my Ethical Radar

‘A man got to have a code.’ – Omar

As I wrote in a previous post, I just began a class in ethics and technology. During lecture last week, I couldn’t help but remembering the quote from Omar in The Wire on how everyone should have a code, or sense of morals – even if they don’t adhere to societal norms.

One of the ideas I’ve been most interested in, after two sessions with the class, is the concept of ‘discussion stoppers,’ and how they can be categorically expected to occur and also why they should be avoided.

I’ve never really enjoyed arguing for the sake of it. Many people get pleasure from the competition of proving their own righteousness or intelligence through ethical battles, and those people always turned me away from the activity. I prefer finding common ground in conversation, rather than exploring differences of opinion. In class, I’m finding out that to treat a subject which is ethically ambiguous requires a more concentrated effort than I’m predisposed to give.

‘Everyone has their own opinion, so there’s no point in trying to come up with a solution. It’s impossible.’ — this is a common perspective and one that I frequently give in to when a discussion becomes difficult. The textbook I’m reading suggests that it is incorrect to claim ethical progress can’t be made on account of the improbability of consensus. The fact that everyone can’t agree doesn’t mean that the discussion itself is useless, or doesn’t lead to minor advancements in understanding.

In the course of any typical week, I consume all kinds of news which touches on ethics. So, as part of the class, I’m starting to give more consideration to each scenario and what the ethical implications are, what claims were made to reach conclusions, and whether the claims appear to be sound.

Hitting my ‘ethical radar’ recently were several issues:

A police officer distracted by a laptop struck a man with his car, killing him, and the officer was acquitted because he was answering a ‘work-related’ email: Since when are emails or any other internet-based activity considered real-time communications of such a timely nature that drivers should be excused for killing a cyclist because they needed to respond to a laptop? The base claim here – that answering an email while driving was more important than a human life – seems unequivocally wrong.
http://www.businessinsider.com/police-officer-will-not-be-charged-in-killing-of-napster-executive-2014-8

Adderall and other ‘neuroenhancers’ being used in top colleges: Is it ok for students to do this? Why is it different from athletes being issued suspensions for using drugs? Those are the questions hinted at in this New Yorker article, which is more descriptive of the phenomenon than suggestive of any ethical standard. It does make more transparent the norms which predetermined the subject’s choices – such as legal decisions categorizing Adderall and other amphetamines as prescription-only drugs.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/27/brain-gain

The Death of Adulthood: A lengthy and fascinating article in the NY Times by film critic A.O. Scott. The premise is that American literary culture has always been youthful & rebellious, but until now those sentiments had purpose against some specific enemy or authority. Scott claims that post-millennial culture has done away with adulthood, but without the ethical backbone of its predecessors.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html?_r=0

Ray Rice and the video taping incident: Aside from the obvious conclusion that Rice’s actions were inexcusable, this story raised several questions about the ethics of surveillance. Was it ethical for the video owners to keep it private for so long after the incident? Does a person who makes a surveillance video have some kind of rights over it, or should they be obligated to immediately make it public? Since they are filming a public place, shouldn’t the video be ‘public,’ and viewable by anyone who is interested in that space? Why are videos filmed for surveillance kept more private than the places that they are filming?

Identity is the New Money

Thoughts on Identity is the New Money, by David Birch. 126 p. London Publishing Partnership, May 2014.

IMAG0909

Despite its provocative title, I didn’t finish this book with a precise understanding of how money will be replaced by identity; but along the way there were several interesting points regarding the advancement of mobile technology as a payment mechanism, and the implications for digital identity and privacy. The brief case studies indicate international efforts to make digital identities are further along than the USA’s, but no one is making great strides in adoption just yet.

I was left with questions about the book’s central idea, which is not a necessarily a bad thing when reacting to this kind of abstract premise. Was he saying I’ll be able to buy goods and services based on how many facebook friends I have? That the social graph alone will prove my ‘credit-worthiness’ and earn me whatever I need that I would otherwise have to pay for with dollars? How does being a part of the social graph actually increase, or enable wealth, from a technological perspective?

I think the book would have benefited from a different title, like ‘mobile phones are the new money.’ To me, the mobile examples were the most interesting futurist perspective offered, and the ones that made the most sense. Instead of cash, mobile phones should communicate without exchanging a great deal of identity information, only that I am Person A who has X number of dollars, and I would like to exchange them for a thing or service. No cash needs to change hands, or even exist, I suppose.

One of the most compelling ideas was that the economy can now support ‘infinite currencies.’ With physical money, we are limited by what we can carry – only one type. But with digital, it can be an infinite number, assuming an infrastructure is there to support it – not unlike the dozens of credit cards some people carry. So I could issue ‘Brian Dollars’ and you could carry them with your regular dollars, and when your phone initiated a transaction with me, I would tell it to use Brian Dollars only and it would comply.

The practical examples for this ability aren’t completely clear, but it seems like a logical idea. Maybe I will only give Brian Dollars to people who are nice, and you can exchange them for a cup of coffee. Or maybe my Apartment Manager will give me ‘apartment dollars’ when I pay my rent early, and I can exchange them for a ceiling fan. This kind of personalized exchange wouldn’t work with standard currency, since standard currency could be exchanged for anything – but with personalized currencies, the scope of transacting is easier to control.

The book’s historical references to ‘giant stones’ and ‘tax collecting sticks’ of centuries old illustrated that payment technology isn’t static. People haven’t been using credit cards or checks forever. Ancient systems were in place before what we have today, and therefore, what we have today will someday also be ancient and replaced by new things. A good way to get people on board with adopting new things is to point out what the old things were, and how much room there is for improvement.

Without a finance background, there were macro concepts behind the cash replacement idea that I didn’t really understand. My interpretation of the argument was that cash is expensive to produce and manage, and permissive of anonymous and potentially illicit transactions, therefore the financial system could be reformed and benefit from operating without cash. I agree with anonymity being undesirable, but I don’t think creating and managing a cashless technology infrastructure will be any simpler than maintaining a cash-based one, nor immune to hacks and corruption.

The most important argument I gathered from the book was that privacy is increased when digital identity is leveraged to facilitate physical, in-person payments (or ‘mundane payments’, as the author calls them.) Through cryptographic wizardry, my phone can prove that it is me, Brian, who is using it, and anyone who wants to interact with it can be sure they are interacting with me – and I can control what ‘parts’ of me, or which ‘identity’ they interact with and get access to. If I only want them to know I have 20 Jumbo Dollars, that’s all they get to know, but if they also need to know I live on Sesame Street, or that I am not a convict, they may ask for access to that information also, and it can be proven authoritatively via private key infrastructure, mobile phones, and identity management applications.

So, in short – this was a complicated but interesting take on the changing landscape of identity credentials, payments, and mobile technology. Maybe not all that fascinating or useful to people who work outside of the ‘Finance Tech’ industry, but perhaps these ideas will become more prevalent and widely understood over the next several decades as mass adoption grows.