uber economy?

Also an official taxi isn't necessarily a safe place (although Robert de Niro killed outside of it only)

Also an official taxi isn’t necessarily a safe place (although Robert de Niro only killed outside of it)

The news are full of stories about start ups in the “sharing economy”.  Depending on the source, they are praising or devastating. These services are fascinating (to me) because they build heavily on a digital and often even mobile infrastructure – while not invented today, this infrastructure is still quite new and thus makes concepts and business ideas possible that no one had thought about before. And they promise to tap into unused potentials of underused cars, un(der)employed people, or temporarily free flats.

cheaper by cheating? case uber

For many customers (users?) the main reason is: they are cheaper than comparable existing services. I wonder how they can do it.

If we think of an ideal market, excessive profits won’t last long because a competitor quickly offers the same service cheaper. If such a market is mature, prices have leveled in. Competitiors therefore try to offer something different, more valuable, in order to be able to ask higher prices (differentiation) or we see new, so called disruptive ideas that do the same thing better, more efficient, etc.
(note: the taxi market is not such an ideal market because you also need a taxi concession, which is limited and regulated. Whether this is useful is a different story, I think it isn’t important for my argument).

When we look at uber(Pop), they are often cheaper. So differentiation doesn’t seem to be their main point: The service they offer from the client perspective is pretty much the same: they bring people from A to B. They use dynamic pricing which can be good and bad for the passenger, depending on demand.

Is their business model disruptive then? They broker rides between passengers and drivers – but that’s common praxis with taxis already. The drivers are self-employed with all the benefits and risks – true for both. They have a nice app but that is available for taxis, too (2008 already!). They tap into a different pool of drivers: anyone! and cars: anyone’s car.

But is that a disruptive advantage? You need enough drivers so that you can serve your customers quickly. Driving for uber must be so profitable that drivers do it professionally and prefer it over driving a taxi. Or that they spend the remaining time besides aonther job transporting other people – not giving s.o. a lift on a way you have to go anyways, but making the tour just for the transport. uber also has a brokerage fee that the company itself lives on. This leaves little room for a cheaper price. Maybe they have a tremendously more efficient system to broker and schedule rides.

My suspicion is that they often circumvent regulations. A usual taxi has to go to inspection once a year. uber cars being private cars only once every two years (in Germany). A usual taxi driver needs a licence that allows transportation of people, they need to renew it every 5 years, they need a special insurance – uber drivers don’t need any of that (uber says it has an insurance in place but doesn’t release any proof of it). All of these regulations seem to be pretty reasonable considering that traffic is dangerous and you are in the driver’s hands as a passenger.

As far as I can see, uber is a little disruptive but also heavily cheating.
(if you have some more business knowledge, I welcome your comments to get this clearer for me!)


Tapping into unused resources: case airbnb

The uber considerations should be true for other services as well, such as Helpling: cheating on regulations, on customer expectations helps lower the price.

The case of airbnb is a little different: it’s a flat you have anyways, like the lift you give someone when ride sharing to a destination you go to yourself. To me, this model seems much more enabled by communication technology. Without it, tourists would just not be able to find that room that is empty over the weekend, at least it would be far too much effort. It also scales to a certain extent: everyone can do it for mutual profit (and some profit for airbnb) and it’s not competing for your time with a job.

The idea loses some of its shine because of its success: when people start renting regular apartments only to sublet them via airbnb, we are back in normal holiday apartment business (and even aggravate the problem of raising rents in crowded places).


Sharing vs helping

“Sharing economy” sounds a little too altruistic for all of these services, at least if we consider the connotation of “giving” in “sharing”. Most of these services are based on profit not just refunding expenses (which a classic ride share ideally does). The main point cultural critics mention is that these services commercialize social interactions, exchanging helpfulness through rational calculus. You can still offer things for free (such as a classic lift, couchsurfing, …). But these services seem to question helpfulness on a societal level.



. . .

Facebook is an infrastructure

Inside Facebooks Prineville Datacenter (photo by Pete Erikson/ Wired.com)

With more and more Facebook features and -acquisitions, it appears increasingly plausible to me that Facebook could become “the internet” to many people around the world. It’s becoming so big and so comprehensive that they would not go anywhere else to surf “the web”. They would do all the messaging, news reading, picture browsing, gaming, shopping on Facebook. In many of today’s ads you find links in the form of f/mycompany instead of the former www.mycompany.com. Is Facebook becomming the new “web”, leaving the www and soon technology like a webbrowser behind (or for the geeks)?

What if Facebook went away?

This could be just another observation from the ever evolving media ecosystem but this shift has/would bring a remarkable change: the www doesn’t belong to anyone (although it’s dominated by the US), while Facebook is privately owned and dominated by Mark Zuckerberg (holding 28% of the shares and speaking for 57%).
He can change the terms of the service as he likes (and so he does) and he could just turn it all off when he got sick of it. Poff — the internet, deleted.

Or imagine it the other way round: Facebook in financial troubles, filing for bankruptcy. This would put so much business, entertainment industries, media channels, personal data, image collections at risk, that it would appear as a public interest to keep Facebook alive — too big to fail.
In his Wired article Can Anything Take Down The Facebook Juggernaut, Steven Johnson called Facebook more an infrastructure than a business by its nature.

Johnson sees two challenges to an all Facebook-internet: it tends to become a walled garden, trying to force users to stay inside its network, e.g. by intercepting links to the “outside” with a “we have an App for that” dialogues. And all walled gardens to date have failed. But in contrast to walled gardens of the old web, the community pulls all the content into Facebook themselves. And, even outside the Matrix Network, you are inside the Network, tracked by beacons, like-buttons or exposed by sponsored stories.

The other risk, according to Johnson, is a break up of Facebook due to monopoly considerations. This would be a spectacular and stunningly bold move by a government: slicing out essential parts of the Facebook code and infrastructure to put it into the public domain, to create a public infrastructure as the www is today. Given the influence of Facebook as a media outlet, this sounds like a Hollywood-movie show down to me. Since presidential election campaings increasingly rely on Facebook, it might never happen.

Consequences of an all-Facebook world

Facebook has made the web less information centric and more people centric and social (sharing sharing sharing). The ease of sharing and staying connected works best when you have a single identity on the web, ideally identical with your offline identity and when your online friends are your offline friends. You can no longer decide yourself to play different roles in different contexts. You can try to funnel certain information into certain social groups (or facets) but this requires extra work and might be overruled by a Facebook update.

But the “Open Graph” goes beyond our intuitive understanding: it reveals connections among people and strengths of links that even the people forming these links might not be quite aware of (or could you easily name your 120 closest friends?). It makes interests, hidden wishes, intimate information accessible through data mining. Maybe not to the public, maybe not to you, but in any case to Facebook.


Mobile Youth and Social Networks

danah boyd has been working for years on the life of youth and particular what role digital media plays for them. At last year’s Aspen Ideas Conference she made three statements that I found extra interesting (beyond my general respect for her work):

  • teenagers engage in emotional exchange with their peers, especially late at night. This is new because without (digital) media they couldn’t meet at these hours before as they were not allowed to go out so late.
  • they don’t need/want super-immersive online worlds for their friends (like 2nd World) but meet them in asynchronous online communities. Problem here is that you can’t connect from MySpace to Facebook.
  • best thing for them is to “take their friends along in their pocket“, i.e. on their mobile phone. But carriers wall their networks and services even heavier then online communities do and, in consequence, “you don’t see innovations happening in mobile” on the social network side.

And this is a sad thing. As you can see here and as we also found out by our own research, mobile communication has the potential to address exactly these wishes of young people. Already now they make use of the technology in maybe unexpected ways: from sending photos from the fitting room to check their new look with their peers to subtle ring tone patterns that inform friends about the success with dating the latest crush.

T-Mobile’s My Faves looks like a move into the right direction because it is open to “even landlines and other networks” — it seems to be a success in the US but is discontinued it in Europe (where “other networks” were only available in one of the options). It’s people who live in social networks and these networks are not determined by a certain web framework or carrier. If carriers want to respond to that they need to open up and get ready for it before the online communities do and take the lead completely.


Explorations into the edges of human

Robots and genetical engineering were dominant topics at this year’s ars electronica, entitled human nature. “So, nothing new…” you might think disappointedly, considering that the latest developments were broadly discussed in their own domains already. But then, this is only the first view. On the second, it appeared that “the arts” (as seen in Linz) weren’t surprised by what today’s science makes possible, either. Some artists added scientific laboratories, complete with staff and researchers, to their toolbox where the general public might still expect brushes and pencils.

Next generation of bio toys?

Next generation of bio toys?

Biotechnological Palettes

The best and most outstanding example for this is Eduardo Kac, this year’s winner of the Golden Nica in the (never more applicable) category of Hybrid Art. Under the cryptic title The Natural History of the Enigma, he had a part of his genome combined biotechnologically with a regular petunia flower. This plant now shows fine red veins in its otherwise pink face (that the upper/inner part of a blossom is called a “face” appears as a helpful coincidence for Kac). It was also Kac who had the first “glow in the dark” bunny produced in 2000, which had fluorescent fur due to flyfish genes smuggled into its DNA.

In his talk, Kac put special emphasis on the fact that the extracted part of his genome usually is responsible for detecting alien material in human blood. So, not only was part of “his blood” now making the flower’s “blood” transportation system visible, it also sneaked into the plant as an alien (with a little help from the biotechnological researchers). The result was then defined as a new life form called “plantimal”, and this particular member baptized (not without wink, as it seems) “Edunia”.

There were a lot of finely considered details, which all together make clear that the artist didn’t want to show (only) what is technologically feasible today. He merely used the potential of today’s technology, which also becomes more and more an everyday procedure, to pursue his aesthetic goals.

This was made even more obvious (or compelling), as this year’s ars electronica gave each prize winner’s talk an accompanying lecture from a “real” scientist. Josef Penninger (Director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Austrian Academy of the Sciences) explained his work on so called knock-out mice and how he was struggling to find the genetical causes of arthritis.

From both talks resulted the strong impression that the genome is just a set of bricks, and that you can design any property or appearance of a creature by the right combination of these biobricks. The audience put this into question and Penninger also conceded that all of this is less stable than we might think: “motherly love [can even] change the genome”. Still, this remark appears more like a side note. For this piece, the deliberate expression of the artist in his final work was described as central, and less the initiation of processes one can’t quite control or (yet) fully understand.


You can even find a S(ecurity level) 1 laboratory as part of the permanent exhibition in the basement of the new ars electronica center.

Robot in the mirror/Uncanny Robots

Gigantic metal monsters, stampeding over planet Earth, that’s a well known and sort of old skool techo-apocalypse. On the one hand, these monsters are already available on the market (less gigantic but at least as leathal as you might expect). On the other, research as well as the arts are often more interested in finding acceptable counterparts for humans, Sociable Robots as the MIT dubs them.

The Geminoid by Hiroshi Ishiguro (from the JST Erato Asada Project), this year’s featured artist, is an exact copy of the body of the artist in the form of a motor driven puppet. The Geminoid is not a robot (or Android) in the classic sense, because it has almost no sensors, world perception or decision making circuits, it can’t even walk. It is controlled by an external, remote operator.

The artist’s goal is to form a puppet that serves as a credible stand-in, e.g. in a discussion at a table, providing a perfect form of telepresence. Showing a certain amount of small, involuntary movements, as it is typical for humans, is among his strategies to bridge The Uncanny Valley, his “ultimate benchmark”, as Ishiguro put it himself. And while you couldn’t tell who is who on a photo, the puppet’s movements are still too slow and uneven to be accepted as humanlike. The ultimate uncanny feeling caught me (in the ars electronica center’s exhibition) when I touched the puppet, feeling the half-soft, half-rubberlike skin, not cold but also not at body temperature.

Ishiguro also reported that he wants to send his Geminoid to “give” his lectures at the Osaka University. It would be still him who talked and he doesn’t expect his students engaging him in fierce discussions, anyway. The university declined his wish so far, and it appeared pretty much as if this caught Ishiguro by surprise.

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

While most of us will smirk about this anecdote, this really comes to the central point of these efforts: Why do we think we need a “real” person to give a lecture? And what qualifies a “really present” person over a remote controlled puppet that performs all necessary tasks, one that might even be undistinguishable? Which then extends the question to how we could tell apart human and puppet, anyways (especially in everyday life where we usually don’t pay so much attention)?

Additionally to what you could see in the exhibition, Ishiguro is also looking into self-controlled robots. And because it turned out to be very complicated to program every possible move into a machine beforehand, his CB2 starts out as a “baby”. Just as human babies, CB2 starts out with very little knowledge about his motor capabilities and how to use them. It has to “learn” everything, by trial and error, by repetition, with external assistance (the “mother”). While it is entirely grey and has a far fainter visual relationship to the human body than the Geminoid, this mimicing of a central human behaviour leaves you with uncanny feelings, just as well.

Just as a human baby, this robot can’t stand up in the beginning. It needs to learn it by combining random movements, remembering previous successful efforts, and by following its (up to now human) teachers. In this context, Ishiguro also pointed out that human brains are more powerful than supercomputers, but operate on a considerably higher level of noise (i.e. not everything computes logically correctly). He speculates that this noise might be particularly key to the human brain’s learning capabilities.

Robot research has become more human, obviously. Not so much or not only in trying to copy humans, but in arriving in the same research areas as anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and brain researchers. And, besides all nerdiness that surrounded Ishiguro, this is also his declared goal: Building robots to learn more about humans.

Social Conditions

To me, the Digital Communities category always has been one of the wonderful aspects of ars electronica. This year, a whole conference day was dedicated to the topic of Cloud Intelligence. Unfortunately, the Nica winners from Wikileaks were not part of the panels, even though they provide a very important service for intelligent societies, transparency.

The first part of the Cloud Intelligence Symposium looked at online communities from a scientific or meta level. Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices) set out to talk about mapping online communication but ended up with the Digital Divide.

Surprisingly, he started with stories about the Marshall Islands that barely rise more than four meters above sea level. That means you can’t go from one island to the next on sight. Old maps used by indigenous people therefore depicted certain distortions in the rhythms of the ocean waves, which are caused by the islands, and can thus guide experienced navigators.

Zuckerman used this as an explanation on how communication mapping can work: not observing what is there (infrastructure), but what happens (emergence). Apparently and to little surprise, the USA, Europe, Japan and south-east Asia all were bustling places, and they are also wealthy regions. Some other countries also were in the bloggers’ focus, the ones which were devastated by military conflicts.

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use - by Worldmapper

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use – by Worldmapper

This approach surely provides better results on the “intelligence potential” than just counting registered users or the bandwidth installed in fibre cables. But looking at the installed or rather mostly missing high-speed infrastructure e.g. in Africa can also tell you that there haven’t been huge efforts so far to connect these parts of the world. On the other hand, and this might turn it into a hen-egg problem, it might have been due to a lack of demand from a wider audience which then kept the infrastructure suppliers from building. Speaking out loud what you think has also less of a tradition in these countries, most of which had or still suffer from authoritarian regimes.

One of Zuckerman’s findings was also that most of the communication, interlinking between blogs, or facebook friendships happen on a domestic scale. “Flocking with the same” is obviously an anthropological constant which stays true in a (technologically) globally networked world. So even internet infrastructure tells you something about “human nature”.

Transcending human imagination

Besides high-tech and deeply researched artefacts, you could also find the very calm ones that aren’t less thought provoking. Perfect example is the machine with gears and concrete by Arthur Ganson: … While you can see that it is moving at its “origin” (motor), after 12 gears of reduction, no movement is perceivable at the other end. We can calculate the movement because we know the mechanics. But also this will just give us some numbers that we can not relate with on a human scale. In fact, the final gear will make a full turn in a trillion years or so which is why Ganson can “savely” attach it firmely into concrete. Quite an interesting link of mechanics and philosophy…

Machine with Gears and Concrete

Machine with Gears and Concrete


Jaiku is dead – hail to the new Jaiku?

This news is already a couple of months old, but it reached me now and struck me: Jaiku got abandoned by Google.

atmasphere is shedding a tear

atmasphere is shedding a tear

I have to admit that I didn’t use Jaiku all that much, basically because of a lacking base of “followers” or–even more important–people to follow. Back then, I was “following” a guy I got to know at ars electronica, and even though we were pretty far away and didn’t exchange that much on other channels, I had the impression of knowing a little bit of his life, some of his feelings, his overall mood. All created by those tiny, subjective, and instant status messages (he was also posting pretty frequently, which is a precondition but also comes by itself once everyone is addicted…). I didn’t get this experience out of any other channel. And it became my standard argument why “those private and boring details of someone’s daily life” are actually pretty valuable.

When I logged in today (6 months after my last message…), I wanted to add someone’s twitter feed. Adding other channels to your stream was actually one of the big pluses of Jaiku over Twitter (Robert Gaal has 3 more)! But all the cool options were gone (example), no other feeds to read nor to add, no nothing. Just the simple message box (which, at least, is still working).

Then I checked the phone client, which was actually much more than that: It was a replacement of your phonebook, giving you quite a bit of status information about your contacts. You could even see whether the other one was using her/his phone currently, so you didn’t have to call in vain or talk to the answering machine instead.

This feature is missing as well (you could operate Jaiku even through SMS, but I get this service is no longer supported, either…). Btw: All of this came out of a Finnish research project a couple of years ago.

On the other hand, Jaiku is now Open Source! And this means, anyone could start a similiar service. Which is great (Jaiku founder Jyri says). Unfortunately, it appears to me, that the spirit of Jaiku was also based on an substantial amount of hardware and money that allowed to run the service smoothly and provided, e.g., to receive status updates via SMS for free. So, it might be more a some- than an anyone who could create “JaiTwo”.

I’ll try to keep an eye on the great Jaiku team, as they are up to something new for sure. Meanwhile, I’ll have to turn to the twitterverse…


Inventing for the other 90%

Growing without design? housings in El Alto

Growing without design? housings in El Alto

The more I get to know the work in large corporations the more it strikes me how much money they spend (or waste) on generating new ideas. Thousands and millions are made available for new or not so new ideas and for exploring new fields of business in continually saturated markets. It comes by little surprise that a lot of the results are pretty poor. Granted, when dealing with “innovation processes” you never know what you’ll get for your investment which makes it hard to judge which money could be saved. But what could be sparked with these funds if applied elsewhere, outside of the business context?

A lot of “ideas” or development efforts are not focused on new technologies or services in the sense of making our lives better. They are just meant to produce new or refined business models so that the company can earn more money. Serving the user’s (let’s say: real) needs from a more holistic point of view is just not taken into account (literally!). In the end of inovation workshops, the single factor for decisions about the future “life” of an idea is profit and not user needs.

I don’t want to criticise companies (at least not here) for their single minded goals of making profits–in the system of capitalism it’s their only reason of existence (and even the companies can’t keep the money but have to pass it on to their shareholders. The contradiction between user needs and profits grows even more this way, as André Gorz describes very clearly). But if we allow us just for a little moment to think outside these business restrictions: Enormous resources are spent to make some bright minds comfortable and creative every day so that they struggle with those oversaturated markets and fight against the “no need barriers” of obviously happy customers.
What if a fraction of these efforts was directed on problems like child poverty, ecologic smartness, cultural diversity? What if oxfam, amnesty international or terre des hommes could be supplied with a comparable stream of brain work?
For sure the effects would be enormous. So many people are longing for a better life and don’t have to be convinced by (insanely) expensive marketing. And all those people are more than willing to contribute as much as they can (and often fail because of lack of influence).

Increadible amounts spent to get ideas on how to cram even more products into costumers in the one world and the destruction and the eradication of so many perspectives because of lacking funds and minds in the other one: That’s an insight that makes me really, really sad.
Of course, you could believe in the Trickle-Down-Effect and hope that the more profits large companies make the more they can invest in new ideas that finally will make the lives of all of us better; but noone is able to tell how long are we supposed to wait for some drips to reach the bottom.

On the contrary! It might be totally plausible that we can’t design within the usual innovation (business, distribution) system if we want to reach this bottom…


Friends Need to be Within Reach, Physically

kissing a shadow

Profiles are a handy thing on the web, as you usually can’t have direct (some would say “real”) contact with others: the internet lets you filter information at a probably unprecedented scale, which makes finding friends with the same or coresponding interests a lot easier.

What if shared interest actually don’t matter (so much)?

It’s a pretty common experience that staying in touch with distant friends is difficult, whether they are “web friends” or not, and even if you share a lot of common perspectives. Psychologists at the University of Leipzig report that (fresh) students, that got randomly seated for their first lesson, were more likely to be friends a year later when they sat next to each other back then (via Die Zeit).

Some basic requirements provided, physical proximity is the best predictor for actual friendships. Intrestingly enough, another group around Pentland, Eagle, et al. conducted a huge empirical research using mobile phone data and found out that the number of meetings in person and phone calls are very good indicators for friendship. While this behaviour might be considered as intentional, the new findings imply that proximity “causes” friendship even unintented!

On the one hand, we could conclude that our increasingly “remoted” social life still faces difficulties that we can’t overcome: Relationships need face to face meetings.

On the other hand, we could also think about whether this finding applies to the online world in a more abstract way: It might be more likely to stumble upon possible friends than actually finding them intentionally (i.e. using sophisticated search methods)–quite an argument for associative browsing support.


Next Generation Social Networking?

On this year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, Liz Lawley complained that

Many social-networking sites essentially force users to become part of a huge community, or they force users to choose whether someone else is a friend or not, with no other subtleties defining that relationship

Of course, this direction fits perfectly to my thesis. But more specifically, I get the impression that more “subtleties” are nice and essential but also require a lot of effort by the user. Maybe similiar to metadata that was/is supposed to establish a “semantic web” but needs very simple interfaces to come to real use (delicious’ tag auto complete might serve as a good example). But while “bad” tagging might just mess up your knowledge base, getting the subtle interpersonal relations adjusted wrongly will get you in deeper trouble with your friends (light friends/good friends/best friends).

via experientia via macworld

[this is just a fast article that will be extended later on, hopefully]


Buddyguard on Stage

buddyshow teaser

Finally, my studies at FH Potsdam come to an end. I will give the presentation of my Master’s Thesis and projects on

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008 at 15 h
in the FH Potsdam Casino.

It has been a tough time untill my book went into press and I’m still quite busy preparing a decent show for you. But, hopefully, you will enjoy it and I will succeed in gaining a proud and honourful Master’s degree.

Buddyguard is helping me with making up a proper guestlist. But you are invited now already, as a reader of my blog!


Scanning for Buddies


A public version of my home grown “buddyscanner” is now available! It is a visualisation tool that I built in order to analyse communication log files of my group of test persons. This data can be usually found as a part of your phonebill or it can be extracted out of email archives.

You can give it a try right away: Start the buddyscanner

Of course, the visualisation is not too meaningful until you use your own data. But with this anonymized version you can get an impression of how it looks and works. (If you would like to have a private visualisation (where private means your data and a safe, password protected place) just let me know: blog [at] emotisys.net)

The visualisation can be rearranged to reflect different aspects of the data. It offers items that can be found in the raw data directly (such as the overall duration of communication), as well as computed values like reciprocity. The final value (from the perspective of my thesis), relevance, is available, too. Relevance is similiar to a kind of “rank” or “importance” of that person as it is seen by the machine. Although I’m using rather simple scoring methods, the results were quite meaningful to my test persons, already.

Some additional explanations:

  • In order to rearrange the diagram you need to click into the select boxes at the end of each axis. There is a third box available that is used for the “third” dimension, which is mapped onto the size of each square.
  • Hovering over a data point will load a flyout window with a more fine grained diagram. To keep it opened, you can click onto the according square.
  • In the flyout, a bar for each call/mail is displayed at the day of the year when it took place. The height is related to the duration/size of the event. Light blue means it occured during (usual) work times, dark blue is for the evening and medium for the weekends.
  • You can make some remarks for other users in the comments field if you like to.
  • If you want to keep track of some points across differnt sortings, you can highlight them with the button at the bottom of the flyout.

If you want to see more, express your doubts or have some remarks, don’t hesitate to make a statement below!