“Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

We are fast-approaching the point when a lack of some basic coding skills will be likened to being illiterate. If you are unable to modify a web page or use an HTML text editor, it will be like not knowing how to create a Word document or edit a PDF file. Coding does appear on some school curricula, but it is primarily taught in the context of maths, computer programming or IT skills. Whereas, if we look at coding as a language capability (part of a new literacy), it should be seen as an essential communication tool in itself.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-language-is-a-virus-from-outer-space-92713First, I am aware that a number of programs for children are trying to teach coding and maths in more relevant ways, and having talked to some of their creators, I admire their ambition to place these skills in a broader context. Coding might be described as the “4th R”: alongside reading, writing, arithmetic we have reasoning”. So a program like Creative Coding HK (as it name implies) focuses on students making things; in the USA, KidsLogic is placing as much emphasis on contextual learning as on robotics; while Australia’s Machinam is re-writing the maths curriculum to teach practical, everyday problem-solving skills.

Second, as we know, learning the foundations of coding is like learning the syntax of a foreign language. However, while Latin and Greek can provide the basis for learning the structure (and many words) of many European languages, it’s not much use when learning character-based languages (Chinese, Japanese) – although there are common grammatical elements. But if we understand that a line of any code has to be structured a certain way, contain essential elements, define key attributes and run in a particular sequence or order, we may come to “read” and interpret what the code is saying or doing.

As an aside, I’m struck by the comments made by the founder of AssignmentHero during a recent pitch night. Although he had studied computer sciences at Uni, he did not use any of the formal computing languages he had learned when building his product. This highlights the downside of learning specific languages, which can become obsolete, unless we have a better grasp of “which languages for which purposes”, or find ways to easily “interpolate” components of one language into another (just as languages themselves borrow from each other). Or do we need an Esperanto for coding?

Third, even if I don’t want or need to learn how to program a computer or configure an operating system, knowing how to define and sequence a set of instructions for running some software or a dedicated program will be essential as more devices become connected in the Internet of Things. For myself, I have dabbled with a simple bluetooth enabled robot (with the original Sphero), acquired a WiFi-enabled light bulb (the programmable LIFX) and experimented with an iOS music app that incorporates wearables (the MIDI-powered Auug motion synth).

Finally, just like a virus, coding is contagious – but in a good way. At a recent event on Code in the Cinema (hosted by General Assembly as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival), there were three demos which captured my attention, and which I will be investigating over the coming months:

I think they show why, where and how many of us “non-computing” types will want to learn the benefits of coding as a new language skill. If nothing else, getting comfortable with coding will help mitigate some of the risks of the “digital divide”.

Next week: The arts for art’s sake….

Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”

 

Deconstructing #Digital Obsolescence

Remember the video format wars of the 1980s? At one point, VHS and Betamax were running neck and neck in the consumer market, but VHS eventually won out (although the also-ran V2000 was technically superior to both). Since then, we’ve had similar format battles for games consoles, video discs, computer storage, CD’s and e-books. It’s the inevitable consequence of operating platforms trying to dominate content – a continuing trend which has probably reached its apotheosis with the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 streaming service. This convergence of hardware and software is prompting some contrary trends and, if nothing else, proves our suspicion of hermetically sealed systems…

about-format2

Trevor Jackson embarks on a format frenzy….

1. Digital Divergence

Earlier this year, UK music producer Trevor Jackson released a collection of 12 songs, each one pressed on a different media format: 12″, 10″ and 7″ vinyl; CD and mini-CD; cassette; USB; VHS; minidisc; DAT; 8-track cartridge; and reel-to-reel tape. Of course, he could have also used 78 rpm shellac records, digital compact cassettes, Digital8 tapes, 3.5 and 5.25 inch floppy disks (still available, I kid you not) or any of the multitude of memory cards that proliferate even today.

While Jackson’s “Format” project might seem gimmicky, it does demonstrate that many digital formats are already obsolete compared to their analogue counterparts (and until very recently, I could have played 8 of the 12 formats myself – but I’ve just donated my VHS player to our local DVD store).

As I have blogged previously, there is an established body of digital/analogue hybrids, especially in data storage, and I can only see this continuing as part of the creative tension between operating systems and content formats.

2. Digital Archeology

Each new hardware/software upgrade brings a trail of digital obsolescence (and a corresponding amount of e-waste). It’s also giving rise to a new discipline of digital archeology, combining forensics, anthropology and hacking.

Back in 2002, it was discovered that a 15-year old multimedia version of the Domesday book was unreadable* – yet the hand-written version is still legible, and available to anyone who can read (provided they can decipher 1,000-year old Norman English). Apparently, it has taken longer to decrypt the 1986 video disc than it took to create it in the first place.

More digital archeologists will be needed to mine the volumes of data that reside in archival formats, if we are to avoid losing much of the knowledge we have created since the advent of the personal computer and the public internet.

3. Digital Provenance

We’re used to managing our data privacy and computer security via password protection, network protocols and user authentication. If we think about it, we also question the veracity of certain e-mails and websites (phishing, scamming, malware, trojans etc.).

A while ago I blogged about the topic of digital forgeries, and the associated phenomenon of digital decay. Just as in the art world, there is a need to establish a method of digital provenance to verify the attributes and authenticity of content we consume.

We are already seeing this happen in the use of block chains for managing cryptocurrencies, but I believe there is a need to extend these concepts to a broader set of transactions, while also facilitating the future proofing and retrofitting of content and operating systems.

4. Digital Diversity

In response to closed operating systems, sealed hardware units and redundant formats, there are several interesting and divergent threads emerging. These are both an extension of the open source culture, and a realisation that we need to have transferable and flexible programming abilities, rather than hardwired coding skills for specific operating systems or software platforms.

First, the Raspberry Pi movement is enabling richer interaction between programming and hardware. This is especially so with the Internet of Things. (For a related example, witness the Bigshot camera).

Second, Circuit Bending is finding ways to repurpose otherwise antiquated hardware that still contain reusable components, processors and circuit boards.

Third, some inventive musicians and programmers are resuscitating recent and premature digital antiques, such as Rex The Dog‘s re-use of the Casio CZ-230S synthesizer and its Memory Tapes to remix their first single, and humbleTUNE‘s creation of an app that can be retrofitted to the original Nintendo Gameboy.

These trends remind me of those Radio Shack and Tandy electronics kits I had as a child, which taught me how to assemble simple circuits and connect them to hardware. (And let’s not forget that toys like LEGO and Meccano started incorporating motors, electronics, processors and robotics into their kits many years ago.)

 5. Salvaging the Future

Finally, as mentioned above, built-in digital obsolescence creates e-waste of the future. A few recycling schemes do exist, but we need to do a better job of reclaiming not just the data archives contained in those old disks, drives and displays, but also the materials from which they are made.

* My thanks to Donald Farmer of Qlik for including this in his recent presentation in Melbourne.

Next week: #FinTech – what’s next?

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors