Friday, 13 December 2019

Hot new business trend: overpromise and under deliver

With the general election safely in our rear-view mirror, it seems only fitting to reflect on political campaigns, where overpromising from both sides on NHS funding, police numbers and infrastructure projects are staples of the daily battles that take place up and down the country. Manifestos have drawn together broad ideological ambitions into concise, neat and memorable policies: 50,000 more nurses, £1 billion for community policing, publicly owned broadband. Can any of this actually be delivered by government? 'Why not vote for us and find out.'

Perhaps surprisingly, politicians' promises often do become reality. A study from Queen Mary University of London found that, between 1987 and 2005, 88 per cent of the governing party’s pledges were implemented within the life of the parliament following the election. That’s quite a high strike rate.

If promises aren’t followed through, governments run the risk of being regarded unfavourably by the electorate next time they go to the polls. A party being dubbed ‘untrustworthy’ might make Brenda from Bristol and Suki from South London (and many others) take their votes elsewhere. Additional pressure on parties in power come from the official opposition, who rigorously scrutinise poorly planned bills, and jump on failures quicker than I jump on chances to get out of daily team meetings. Point is, politicians are held to account for promises, because if they’re caught lying, they can expect to be splashed on the front page of the tabloids and become a trending topic on Twitter faster than you can say ‘hashtag fridgegate’. It’s not a tidy nor necessarily even a consistent method of ensuring honesty from people in power, but it is a system that just about works… or it did, until recently.

We’re blasted constantly by the press howling about how the rise of social media is tarnishing proper accountability. Twitter making it harder for people to differentiate between fact and fiction; WhatsApp allowing the spread of false information through undetectable and encrypted channels; Facebook lacking transparency when it comes to political ads, and Pinterest… actually, Pinterest seems pretty much okay. Due to this, candidates running for public office have been able to inflate, exaggerate, or sometimes even outright lie to voters without being held to account. See Boris Johnson promising 40 new hospitals – something that was proved to be false -– but then avoiding the brutally forensic tone of Andrew Neil in a BBC interview. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn exclaiming nobody under £80,000 would pay more tax if he was elected, yet having a suspiciously expensive spending plan.

Politicians have learnt that, in the digital era, it is in their interest to make bold and outlandish promises because any accountability they will face has been diluted considerably compared to the politicians who were in their shoes ten – or even five – years ago. The lack of risk now associated with overpromising and under delivering is a dream come true for people who want to lead. Unsurprisingly, this trend has been spilling into the business world too.

What never was: Apple AirPower
Whereas politicians at least faced fierce scrutiny from multiple institutions, business leaders are allowed to run wild. If a politician promises you easier access to GPs and doesn’t deliver, you can take your vote elsewhere. In a world dominated by powerful tech and media monopolies, it is becoming increasingly hard to take your business elsewhere. As for opposing companies holding each other to account, when Apple announced ‘AirPower’ (their all-in-one wireless charging port for all of their mobile devices) at one of their swanky, Fashion-Week-esque launches, but then failed to deliver, it wasn’t Microsoft’s job as a competitor to prioritise highlighting this failure – and rightly so: they’ve got better things to do. But because of this, CEOs find themselves only accountable to the media - who are increasingly distracted by bananas duck-taped to walls and dystopian exercise bike adverts.

Shareholders and stakeholders who would usually come down on a CEO who was found to be misleading the public, are realising it is in their financial interest to let their leaders make deceptive announcements or issue dubious press releases. They create media attention, drive up the stock price, and the media ‘gotcha’ moment is so minuscule that it is forgotten within a week, if not a day!

Think about it. When was the last time you had something delivered by drone – I’m looking at you, Amazon. Or when was the last time Tesla hit their production targets? Never. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai proudly bounded onto stage to announce Google Duplex, an AI assistant that could make calls on your behalf to small businesses. A year and a half later, Android’s synthetic voice is nowhere to be heard. This isn’t because Pichai lied. Rather he set expectations too high, only seeing the potential of the idea, not the logistical and ethical challenges he would face. Yet he circumvented any negative consequences.

Sometimes CEOs forgo the opportunity to loudly disappoint the public like Pichai. He made the mistake of announcing Duplex in an open-air theatre in San Francisco, broadcasting to hundreds of thousands around the world. However, CEOs are learning to be far less overt in their big promises. Tech companies are now well versed in filing patents for barmy ideas, as they know all too well that a significant proportion of the media dredge patent applications looking for scoops. Amazon’s flying warehouse, Apple’s vaporiser, Google’s ‘human flypaper’ - I’m not making this stuff up! These companies know what they’re doing and they also know that they’re not going to be penalised for this behaviour. Tech companies especially have taken the ‘big promises, small delivery’ model crafted by politicians and put it on acid.

How CEOs get away with it is not just the result of a lack of media scrutiny and disinterested shareholders. You also need to ask yourself what Elon Musk and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? Leadership cults. For every Corbynite in the world of politics, there’s a Musk fanboy in the world of business.

Whilst at the moment, the benefits of overpromising and under delivering seem to vastly outweigh the drawbacks, the risk lies in the fact that this is likely not a strategy that can be sustained forever. Punters aren’t dumb and will come to see the reality if a company has a track record of poor expectation management. As soon as customers become fed up, stock prices falter, shareholders wise up, and the accountability CEOs have been dodging gracefully for so long, will quickly catch up with them.

Surely, it’s only a matter of time before major statements with minor follow-through action ends very badly for a leader. But in the meantime, it’s a risk they are willing to take.

Darlington General Election Results (1922-2019)

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

I’m a joke: How a comedian *finally* told a story about me

Comedian Sean Collins at the comedy club in September 2019.
(He’s got nothing to do with this story.)
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
I was in an Italian restaurant when a voice came through my radio. The place was dimly lit and the hum of conversation filled the warm air. I was stood behind the bar frantically attempting to book three separate tables, for three separate dates, with a bartender whose jittery fingers kept lurching to the wrong buttons on the booking app, only putting me more on edge.

“Liam, the MC is here,” the voice through my radio exclaimed.

In my now-standard fashion, I rapidly departed the Italian restaurant, swaying to avoid waitresses and the backs of customers’ chairs (not very well, admittedly) and power-walked across Villiers street and back Under The Arches. There was no particular hurry; there was still 30 minutes until the first comedian took to the stage, but I leapt down the stairs in the entrance of the comedy club, striding 3 steps at a time and then back up the stairs at the opposite side of the box office.

The funniest person in the Midlands
The MC that evening was a comic named James Cook. A radio DJ turned comedian, James won the Spike Milligan award for being the funniest person in the Midlands in 2003 and has since performed over 1000 gigs — some of which were at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.

The doors of the comedy club had just opened when I leapt up the stairs and into the comedy room. Only six customers had entered so far and at the bar next to the DJ booth stood a large white man with long grey hair — the stereotypical look of a stand-up comedian.

I got to him just as he was about to buy a couple of pints.

“Are you James?” I interrupted the transaction.

“Yes” exclaimed the MC with a smile.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get these”, I replied whilst handing the bartender a couple of drinks voucher. (It’s the least you can do to treat your comedians to a free pint or two).

I introduced myself to him, explained it was a sold out show so should be a goodun, and told him: “If you need anything else, just give us a shout.”

James and me then went our separate ways… bizarrely.

As I retreated to the DJ booth, James headed for the front row where a lady was sat waiting for him. As I watched him approach the seats, I muttered ‘fuck’ (rather to the confusion of the sound engineer) as it clicked that I’d just bought a random customer, who had coincidentally happened to be also called James, a couple of drinks; making a right old tit of myself.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage…”
An hour later, the actual MC is on stage after the first interval (it turned out he’d gone straight to the loo after entering the club and swerved me completely). He interacts with a bloke sat on the front row.

“Hello mate, what’s your name?”


“That’s a coincidence, my name is James too. Funnily enough, I’ve just been told a story about you…”

Tragically, I told this story to a colleague who pointed out that the middle aged bloke at the bar probably thought I was just flirting with him (after all, we were in Heaven). My radio and staff ID card were well hidden under my shirt and my ear piece wasn’t in yet. What this stranger saw was a twenty-something year old approach him at the bar, buy him a couple of drinks and say, “If you need anything else, just give us a shout.” The situation could have only been more suggestive if I’d winked at him and slapped his arse as I walked away.

This was originally published on Medium. Read here.

Facebook attempts to build public trust... and fails immediately.

A Biden attack ad from the Trump campaign
In audio leaked to US tech outlet The Verge earlier this month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg riled against the suggestion of harsher government regulation of big tech, stating it would actually make election interference and hate speech more likely.

The CEO boasted about the company's superior ability to deal with these issues, slamming competitors such as Twitter: "Our investment on safety is bigger than the whole revenue of their company!”

As if by on cue, Facebook then proved how... urm... unsafe their platform was.

Only a week after Zuck's comments about safe elections and wanting to "build trust" with the public, Facebook refused to take down a Trump ad accusing former vice president Joe Biden of dodgy dealings with the Ukraine - a conspiracy theory spread by Trump that has landed him at the centre of an impeachment inquiry.

Facebook eventually took some versions of the ad down, showing they can deal with safety issues on their own platform. If only the ad hadn’t been displayed over 300,000 times before they decided it violated their policies…

Friday, 30 August 2019

Amazon relaunches dark-arts PR campaign powered by 'Borgs'

Amazon's small army of Fulfilment Centre Ambassadors began tweeting again last week about how great their employer is after the company's new ‘fulfilment centre' tours came under fire for appearing to be an attempt to undermine the endless accounts of ex-employees who have highlighted the poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses.

As part of Amazon's 'dark-arts PR campaign', fourteen 'FC Ambassador' accounts were launched in 2018 to join online conversations where they could fight Amazon's corner - countering criticism with monotonous talking points regurgitated with a 'nothing to see here' attitude. The accounts perk up every few months to parrot the same Amazon-approved lines on bathroom breaks, suitable wages, and competent management. And who would have guessed, they are also staunchly anti-unionisation - as they apparently make it difficult for employers to promote staff!

The accounts have been likened to zombie ambassadors, hive-minded Borgs, and have probably caused more bad PR for Amazon than they have sufficiently addressed. In January, the accounts began creepily changing ownership; an ambassador named Michelle who occasionally tweeted about her grandchildren regenerated into a twenty-something man named Rafael.

It is reported that on-the-floor workers selected to be ambassadors (of which at least four are British) receive an additional paid day off as well as a gift card in return for singing endless online praise for Amazon and its founder. For now, the propaganda accounts continue to be run by 100% real employees, however this is until they inevitably find a machine that can do it for cheaper - in true Amazon fashion!

Friday, 8 June 2018

Two Years in London

Do you remember the snow in March? That was good.
They say time flies when you’re having fun - but it feels like the second year hasn’t even started yet. Due to a combination of lecturer strikes that consumed all of my uni contact hours in March, my measly three exams which we got two months off to revise for, some extremely poor lecturing, and a two day week in uni because of the way the timetable worked out, the amount of effort I’ve been required to put into my course has been minimal. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy though.

I moved back to London in early September, spent a wonderful two weeks in Stratford, moved to Bow in mid-September and began working non-stop until the middle of April. I’ve had a wonderful time this year jumping from meetings with university management, to talks from HuffPost editors; shooting and editing a news show over the course of a day, spending endless hours on the phone with Robyn, and enduring the necessary torture that is patronisingly dull child-safeguard training for a Scout group - and all that was just a random Tuesday last February. In 1986, a great man once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Looking like an ostentatious arsehole: presenting the
first episode of The Print's Mile End in a Minute
The Print
I can’t talk about my second year at uni without talking about the newspaper. Despite finding some moments extremely difficult, I loved every second of being editor. I loved the variety of writing I read, the stories I heard, and the people I met. I'm honestly going to miss editing and I just hope I did people proud.

I love London as much as I hate London
For every positive, there is a negative. London hosts a level of blatant rudeness you’d find nowhere else in the world. Were you in this queue? I don’t think so, matey. On the flip side, this does mean that random acts of kindness go a long way. It’s a city where too many people take themselves too seriously, however it is one of the best places to express your eccentricities. The air quality is noticeably awful in areas, however people all around London try to save the planet and conserve fossil fuels by not using their car indicators. I love those people. They’re the best.

The Flat
As with London, I’ve had a love hate relationship with my flat. It’s fantastic because it’s a 10 minute walk from Queen Mary, and a 2 minute walk from the Slammersmith and Pity (what us locals call it) and the Docklands Light Railway. However, the laminate floorboards in my bedroom have a carpet of hair that doesn’t belong to me; and despite cleaning the floor almost fortnightly, it’s not going away. Also, the hot and cold taps in the bathroom being the wrong way round to what they should be bugs the hell out of me, the ice cream van that plays the ‘Match of the Day' theme tune outside at 10 to 6 every day drives me up the wall, and the fact I only met my next door neighbours when I ran into them in the stairwell and they accused me of having friends round who nicked the front tyre of their bike doesn’t make for the warmest of neighbourhoods. Jokes on them, I never have friends round.

Profound Conclusion
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this year, it's to be difficult (but for the right reasons, of course). I remember talking to a friend at the end of March about the feeling of being sick of arguing with people, but looking back, I’m pleased I picked the fights I did. Hopefully some of them have resulted in making some people’s bittersweet relationships with London a smidgen more sweet at times, whether they’re colleagues, students, or friends.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Cambridge Analytica scandal isn’t a scandal, it’s a business model

Cambridge Analytica recently closed down following a joint investigation from Channel 4 and The Observer which exposed that the company had been collecting Facebook user data without consent and targeting messages during the 2016 European Union referendum.

Since then, founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has faced questions from the US Senate; which mostly consisted of people who barely knew what they were talking about, piecing together semi-literate, broad questions which were mostly irrelevant. And, the EU Parliament; which entailed 75 minutes’ worth of very specific and nuanced questions followed by Zuckerberg speaking vaguely about general themes that came up, rendering both of these sessions rather pointless. Facebook needs proper scrutiny and despite what Zuckerberg thinks, the technology industry cannot regulate itself. This is evident by the fact that the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal was not caused because Facebook enabled it - rather, it was caused because they encouraged it.

Facebook’s business model is rooted in the notion that companies pay to target adverts based on user data that Facebook has collected. Despite what many might think, the customers aren’t the users, the customers are the organisations and businesses willing to pay for user data. What Cambridge Analytica did was simply an extension of this; they found a loophole.

Let's be clear, targeting political adverts based on user behaviour and interests is not illegal. If it was, Facebook would not be the tech behemoth it is today. They’ve been reasonably transparent about this too as they state exactly what data they collect and how they use it in their Privacy Policy.

Critics enjoy pointing that this is unethical as nobody reads privacy policies because they are too long - as The Wall Street journal pointed out, revised and condensed policies from 30 of the top apps still span the length of an American football field. They could shorten these policies however realistically, unless the whole policy can be summarised in less than 100 words, it is very unlikely that the majority of users are going to read it; a task that would be virtually impossible.

Facebook collecting data and aggregating it for advertising use is how they make their money. Yes, Cambridge Analytica went above and beyond to exploit this but ultimately, it’s not too different from any Facebook targeted advertising.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

When news isn't news

Modern news apps aren’t as ground-breaking as Google and Apple might think

At I/O 2018, Google announced they are relaunching their news app so it brings users a customised feed of stories based on their interests and what they've previously read. In short, this is Google's take on Apple News. These news apps, which are basically glorified RSS feeds, are well-intentioned however ultimately problematic. Technology promised to eliminate some of the issues associated with old media, however I fear that they've only made them worse.

The main issue is that letting an algorithm pick news for you based on interests you've told it and your reading history is not a good way to digest news. Google has proved their algorithms for generating content don't really work – as demonstrated by the YouTube Trending page where fake news, violent videos, and copyrighted material often surfaces to the top. To be fair, this isn't a problem limited to Google. Facebook makes a hash of providing news too. They spent the whole of 2016 doing nothing about the unchecked saturation of fake news circulating around their platform.

Secondly, displaying stories based on previous reads does not mean they are the pieces you should be digesting. Google says, through “reinforced learning,” the app will learn what topics and publishers you like. Apparently "the more you use it, the better it gets." However most people are drawn in by clickbait and non-stories with glorified thumbnails. Fall for them three or four times and presumably this means Google will start thinking that you have an appetite for pointless listicles and trivial news, so you will be shown more.

Thankfully, there is a simple fix to these problems: editors.

Call me old fashioned but what is wrong with allowing actual human beings to decide what are the most important issues of the day and giving stories some gravitas by putting them in the public eye? This would serve readers better too as it would diversify the topics that appear in the feed.

The obvious opposition to this idea is the fact that editors have biases. Of course they do. But, as do algorithms. It has been proved numerous times over the past decade that algorithms reflect the people who write them so they're not truly impartial either. At least with a group of editors, there is someone to hold accountable if you don't think the news is neutral.

In a society where there is now a large need for views to be challenged and news not to simply reinforce a person’s 'confirmation bias', Google News is doing little to address the challenges. In an ideal world, Coffee House blogs from The Spectator should be put in front of liberals and ‘Comment is Free’ think-pieces from The Guardian should be exposed to conservatives. Instead, it would appear that Google is keener to associate their news efforts with buzzwords like 'machine learning' and 'AI' in order to satisfy investors - rather than creating an information tool that would benefit society.

This is nothing new though. It's unlikely that someone on the political left would go out and buy The Daily Mail or someone on the right The Observer. However, technology has the ability to bring people more balanced news and to expose people to analysis that they might not agree with. Moreover, the companies which are providing platforms for news (Google, Apple and Facebook) have a duty not just to host the content but to prioritise the content which is actually factually correct. Simple as it may sound, this is something an algorithm currently struggles to do.

In Google's defence, they do try and partly address this problem. The news app has a tab called 'Headlines' which Google claims will help readers "understand the full story." On Stage at I/O, Trystan Upstill said, "Today, it takes a lot of work a lot of work to broaden your point of view and understand a story in depth. With Google News we set out to make that effortless." Cut through the waffle and fundamentally this is just a feed of top stories from a wide variety of trusted sources.

Inside of this, they’ve created a 'Full Coverage' feature which will allow users to see how a story is being covered from a variety of sources - including fact checking sites. Google says that everyone will see the same content in Full Coverage. "It’s an unfiltered view of events from a range of trusted news sources."

So why not build the whole app with this foundation, rather than hiding it in a niche corner of the app? When you open the app, you still land on the 'For You' tab which serves you a plate of sources you like the taste of.

Although Google – and others – have the capacity to incite positive change to the media landscape and democratise information to provide the world with more balanced news, Google News has the same problems as old news media, but in a modern format and with “light, easy, fast, and fun design choices.” Thanks for nothing, Google.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Google's quest to end real life human interaction

Why talk to another person when you can talk to Artificial Intelligence?

Google I/O 2018 was where Duplex was announced
At Google’s developer conference earlier this month, the tech giant announced a new feature in Google Assistant called ‘Duplex’ which will make calls to organisations and businesses on your behalf. “Hey Google, book me an appointment at the barbers” - and voilĂ ! Google will make that very simple call that you are apparently too busy to make.

I am sceptical of this new gimmick. Ethically, Google Duplex will need to start every call by declaring that it is a bot. Legally, I don't see how this gets around the two-party consent needed in some US states for recordings to be made (as all the processing will be done on Google’s servers). And seriously, why does the voice speak with fillers like “urm” and “hmm”? Google has a lot of questions to answer.

Say what?
Even though CEO of Google Sundar Pichai says, “Duplex can understand the nuances of conversation,” I suspect the prospect of tech like this working seamlessly is still a long way off. When I was watching the keynote on YouTube (a Google company), I couldn’t help noticing that the automatically generated captions were still nonsensical drivel – proving that text-to-speech and vice-versa technology is still more of a novelty than a reliable tool.

In the demo, they got Google Assistant to call a 'real' hair salon and book an appointment. However the conversation still seemed rather simulated. I wonder how Duplex will respond to disgruntled, underpaid restaurant workers with a strong accents. Will Duplex give as good as it gets when called a “wee bint”?

Thinking about the future of this product, offloading scheduling calls that you don’t want to make to restaurants, masseuses, and alike are just the beginning. How long after the launch of Duplex will I be able to say, “Hey Google, catch-up with my best friend”? Then for it to call them; outputting extracts of my voice so it can murmur along and ask broad follow-up questions as they drone on and on about their banal endeavours in the club last night.

Tech giants like Google always appear to have altruistic intentions on the surface, however I can’t see many realistic long-term advantages of Duplex. It will only decrease actual human interaction and make the few interactions we do have with strangers more negative. What kind of message are you sending to the kabab shop or dry-cleaners if you get Duplex to call them rather than making the simple call yourself? You’re basically asking for your someone to gob in your doner meat or lose your knickers, Mrs I’m-too-important-to-deal-with-you-little-people.

I’m labouring the point here, but Google is making the large assumption that people will want to interact with bots. I know I certainly don’t. So, even though calls to businesses are often mundane, cherish these little pieces of actual human interaction whilst you can.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Interview with Queen Mary's Principal for The Print

Last month, I interviewed President and Principal of Queen Mary Colin Bailey for The Print. We discussed the higher education sector, student safety in London, his vision for Queen Mary and much more. Listen below or on iTunes. Alternative, search 'The Print Podcast' wherever you get your podcasts.

Questions were by myself and Sophie Mitchell, with additional help from Queen Mary students who submitted questions via our web form.

Apologies for the poor sound quality at times; the interview its self was recorded using my phone's microphone.

I'd love to hear your feedback and suggestions for future guests who would make good interviews (preferably people who do something that is of interest to students). So, feel free to Tweet at me. In the meantime, happy listening.