Tag Archives: Technology

Toys R Us’ bankruptcy

I remember how I used to always look forward to going to the local Toys R Us store when I was a child. I was therefore suprised, and disappointed, to read the news that Toys R Us is filing for bankruptcy earlier this week. I imagine that many adults who relied on the retailer for their childhood toys felt the same way.

Most of the stories covering the bankruptcy have focused on Toys R Us’ inability to pay off its debts as the source of the bankruptcy. While that is indeed the final manisfestation of the problem which led to the company’s bankruptcy filing, this final manifestation of the problem is actually the result of the company’s profits not being large enough to cover its debts.

And the shortfall in profit is the result of the primarily offline toy retailer losing sales to two alternatives. The first is online toy retailers and the second is smartphone and tablet apps that offer children an alternative source of entertainment to toys. These are the core problems, and both of these core problems are examples of technological progress.

As tough as it is to see Toys R Us go, the fact that technology is responsible both for the company’s departure and as an alternative to the products it sold, is a small consolation.

Happy birthday Webrazzi

Webrazzi, the leading tech news website in Turkey where we’re investors, recently had its 11th birthday. Founded in 2006, I’m pretty sure that this makes it the oldest company in our portfolio.

Journalism is a very challenging job in today’s world. The emergence of social media which amplifies and quickly draws both supportive and critical feedback in response to each piece of content makes you choose your words carefully and think twice before you publish something.

Add to this the fact that Webrazzi covers tech, a sector where new developments take place at a very fast pace, and you get a glimpse of how challenging the job of a Webrazzi writer is.

In light of these challenges, Webrazzi’s writers are doing a great job. Happy birthday Webrazzi.

Technology and jobs

When people talk about the negative impact of technology on jobs, the impact of e-commerce on jobs at brick-and-mortar retailers is an often used example.

In reality, this is an incomplete analysis. While e-commerce does indeed reduce jobs at brick-and-mortar retailers, it creates even more jobs at warehouses. Specifically, when the jobs which e-commerce has created at warehouses and those that it has taken away at brick-and-mortar retailers are both taken into account, e-commerce has created 54,000 net jobs over the last year.

This doesn’t mean that technology will always create jobs. This is just one example. For example, as warehouses become increasingly automated, eventually the aggregate impact of e-commerce on jobs will be net negative.

However, it’s a useful reminder that many analyses about the impact of technology on jobs are incomplete.

And when technology does indeed create a large net negative impact on jobs, then we’ll have the time to focus our energy on more creative endeavors. As John F. Kennedy said “If men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work.”

A different story from the Middle East

I wrote about our first meeting with Chris Schroeder, author of Startup Rising, in May 2015. Startup Rising covers the rise of technology and entrepreneurship in the Middle East.

Fast forward two years, and the startup ecosystem in the Middle East has developed significantly. Companies like Souq, Namshi, and Careem have each proved that large tech businesses can be built in the region.

What hasn’t changed is Chris’ dedication to the region. In this insightful article in the MIT Technology Review entitled “A Different Story from the Middle East: Entrepreneurs Building an Arab Tech Economy”, Chris shares some of the most recent positive developments and entrepreneurial success stories emerging from the region.

Chris’ active coverage and global promotion of tech entrepreneurship in the Middle East continues to be very valuable for the region.

Technology and entitlement

On yesterday’s flight from Istanbul to San Francisco, I was hoping to connect to the inflight WiFi to do some work that required internet connectivity. Unfortunately, the inflight WiFi didn’t work for the duration of the 13 hour flight.

At first I was disappointed. Since I had set my mind on what I wanted to be doing during the flight, I was upset when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I had planned.

But then I thought to myself how inflight WiFi didn’t even exist until a few years ago. I realized that, over the span of the last few years, I had gained a sense of entitlement to a technology whose absence I didn’t complain about in the past and whose presence is, even if it doesn’t always work, pretty miraculous.

So rather than complain, I simply did the work I could do in the absence of an internet connection.

And I even had time left over to read a book.

Inaction

We live in a time period where technology has greatly increased our productivity. This means that, on an individual basis, we can get things done much faster than before.

Thanks to the content available on the internet, we can learn faster than before.

Thanks to the extensive storage and processing capabilities of software and hardware, we can apply our learnings to quickly produce outputs from inputs.

And thanks to online communication tools like email and messaging apps, we can instantaneously relay the outputs we produce, and the decisions based on these outputs, to the people we interact with.

In other words, technology makes it easy to act fast.

However, acting fast isn’t always in our interest.

Although there is a limitless amount of content that we can learn from, our brains remain single track processors that need to recharge regularly. We therefore need to choose what to learn, and allow enough time for the learning to actually take place.

Although we have, for most practical purposes, virtually infinite storage and processing capabilities, that doesn’t mean that we should store and process everything.  We need to ask the right questions based on our learnings in order to store and process data that’s likely to produce meaningful answers. We also need to cross-check the assumptions behind our answers before using these answers to drive our decisions.

And although we can instantaneously communicate the outputs we produce, and the decisions we take based on these outputs, to others, we need to take into account the fact that the recipients of these outputs and decisions are humans. Humans process information differently depending on when they receive it, both on an absolute basis (for example, the time of day or on weekdays versus weekends) and on a relative basis (for example, relative to when they expect to receive it, which is in turn influenced by the importance of the output or decision and when you last communicated). As a result, the first moment when an output or decision is available for communication isn’t necessarily the right moment for its communication.

In other words, while technology makes it easy to act fast, as a result of our humanity, there are important benefits to inaction.

Video assistant referee technology in soccer

In a May 2016 post entitled “Technology in soccer”, I wrote that “Now that (video recording and replay) technology is available (through smartphones) to everyone in the heat of the moment, the power is shifting from FIFA to the fans. I think that the fans will eventually vote to preserve the true spirit of soccer (by using video recording and replay technology to help referees make the right in-game decisions)”.

Fast forward about a year and video recording and replay technology is indeed being used to help referees make the correct in-game decisions. Specifically, in yesterday’s 3rd place Confederations Cup game between Portugal and Mexico, the referee paused the game to use video assistant referee technology to correctly award Portugal a penalty.

While using the video assistant referee causes a momentary delay in the game, it’s well worth the resulting benefit of promoting fairness in the sport. Well done FIFA.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a video of the video assistant referee as used in yesterday’s game, but here’s a video of the first time that it was used in Australia’s top soccer league, the A-League.

Technology, GDP, and human welfare

In a post from December 2015, I wrote that technology produces a consumer surplus which, although it isn’t captured in GDP, is a very important part of human welfare. The examples I drew on in that post were from an Economist article which focused specifically on the consumer surplus created by the internet.

However, the internet is just one form of technology. Other technologies, like smartphones, have a similar impact on consumer surplus which isn’t captured in GDP.

Here’s a September 2016 presentation by Hal Varian from the University of California at Berkeley which gives several examples of the consumer surplus generated by smartphones. Towards the end of the presentation, Hal also shows how the global supply chain is another factor which confounds GDP measurements.

Meditating

I recently started meditating using the Headspace app.

I knew that I wanted to try meditating, but I didn’t know where to get started. What I did know is that I wanted a guided journey rather than to be my own guide. This would make it easier to get started and stay motivated.

However, I also didn’t want to pay for offline meditation classes. I wanted a low cost way of trying meditation at the location of my choice during the day. As a result, I searched for meditation apps and, sure enough, there are several. I picked Headspace because it had the highest ratings among meditation apps on the Google Play store.

Headspace starts you off with 10 free lessons each consisting of 10 minutes of guided meditation. You can then pay if you want additional lessons.

I’ve completed the first 4 lessons over the last 4 days and am very happy with the results. Although I was initially skeptical about whether you could use a smartphone to meditate (I associate meditation with putting technology aside to focus on your inner self), the smartphone essentially serves as a speaker. Once you push the play button to begin a particular lesson, you just listen to the guided meditation without any further interactions with your smartphone.

My mind is much clearer after the meditation lessons. And it requires just 10 minutes per day at no financial cost for the first 10 lessons, and about $10 per month (or less than $100 for an annual plan) thereafter.

If you’d also like to think more clearly and be more peaceful throughout the day, meditating definitely helps. And Headspace is a great way to get started.

Privacy

I recently watched the movie The Circle.

The movie tells the story of a fictional global tech company called The Circle that seeks to end people’s privacy. The company reminded me of today’s Facebook or Google, not because these companies are doing the same but because that’s what the director’s choice of the technology produced by the company and the company’s corporate campus suggest. The Circle’s guiding principle behind its motivation to end privacy is that “knowing is good, but knowing everything is better”.

While I believe that this principle is true for scientific information that informs our view of how the world works, it’s not true for information about the lives of people. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that people have emotions resulting from personal preferences which, as long as one does not infringe on the lives of others, we as a society need to respect.

The second reason is that many people do not have the tolerance to accept viewpoints and lifestyles different than their own. Ending everyone’s privacy would result in intolerant people, often in large groups, preying on innocent individuals.

As the movie argues, ending privacy sounds liberating in theory, but produces many bad outcomes in practice.

However, as the movie doesn’t point out, complete privacy isn’t the solution either. There are cases which justify the use of technology to infringe on one’s privacy with the goal of preventing harm. The problem is that giving the right to use this technology to humans can produce bad outcomes if it falls into bad hands.

Rather than adopt a blanket statement in favor of or against privacy, we need to go a level deeper and evaluate specific categories of scenarios on a case by case basis. With the increasing attention which the applications of technology have brought to the issue of privacy, we’ve entered a time period where we’re increasingly doing just that.