Proximal, Not Mobile; Postnormal, Not Post Desktop

I am constantly baffled by the microeconomic, inward-focused analysis of what should be viewed as large-scale technoeconomic trends. It’s so off that – from my view point – these authors completely miss what’s going on. The narrative can be so far from touching the causative that a reader of my blog might wonder if we are looking at the same world.

Here’s a fisked example:

In Mobile World, Tech Giants Scramble to Get Up to Speed – Claire Cain Miller and Somini Sengupta via

The industry giants remain highly profitable drivers of the economy. Yet the world’s shift to computing on mobile devices is taking a toll, including disappointing earnings reports last week from Google, Microsoft and Intel, in large measure related to revenue from mobile devices.

[It was recently shown that as much as 70% of the use of ‘mobiles’ is in the home. So they aren’t ‘mobiles’, per se: they are proximal devices: the com(munication)/com(puting) device always with us. Therefore, much of the narrative about mobile comcom is wrong.]

Investors are in suspense over Facebook’s earnings to be disclosed Tuesday, for much the same reason. Yahoo’s new chief, Marissa Mayer, said on Monday that Yahoo had failed to capitalize on mobile and must become a predominantly mobile company.

[It may seem natural to watch the so-called giants struggle with proximal, but much more of our attention should be directed to what people are actually doing with proximal devices. For example, checking prices online while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores – ‘showrooming’ – is now commonplace. A recent survey showed that 97% of showroomers bought the product searched for online later for less. This is forcing brick-and-mortar to match Internet prices, or die. But by matching low-overhead outfits like Amazon, they will go out of business, just a little bit slower. Google could optimize for that experience, but people are more likely to jump to Amazon. Facebook may be the scene where people chat about products while in the store, but they jump to Amazon to price check.]

Demand for Intel chips inside computers — which are much more profitable than those inside smartphones — is plummeting. At Microsoft, sales of software for PCs are sharply declining. At Google, the price that advertisers pay when people click on ads has fallen for a year. This is partly because, while mobile ads are exploding, they cost less than Internet ads; advertisers are still figuring out how to make them most effective.

[I don’t think this a paragraph: the first half is about declining chip sales because of the rapid shift into a new era of computing, the post desktop era. Interesting, but not as compelling as the economic transition into the postnormal, which is what we are seeing in the drop in advertising revenue on  increasingly social proximal devices. I think this is a permanent decrease in value, not a temporary one, not ‘just until things work themselves out’. Where people have better access to more information to inform judgments literally in their hands, the propaganda machinery will simply work less well. Despite the socialwashing going on in business, ads just will never work as well as they once did. Welcome to the postnormal.]

Since its initial public offering, Facebook has lost half its value on Wall Street under pressure to make more money from mobile devices, now that six of 10 Facebook users log in on their phones.

[Betting on a postmodern concept of social networking after we have skittered into the postnormal is not a good bet. Which some of us predicted.]

Making money will now depend on how deftly tech companies can track their users from their desktop computers to the phones in their palms and ultimately to the stores, cinemas and pizzerias where they spend their money. It will also depend on how consumers — and government regulators — will react to having every move monitored.

Facebook is already experimenting with ways to use what it knows about its users to show ads when they are using other mobile apps. Google can link what a logged-in user does on the computer and phone, to show someone a cellphone ad based on what they have searched for on a computer at home, for instance. But just last week, European regulators warned Google to amend its privacy policy that allows it to gather information about people across diverse Google products, from Gmail to YouTube.

In addition, Nielsen found that only one in five smartphone users described ads on phones as “acceptable.”

Today almost half of Americans own a smartphone, according to comScore — an astoundingly fast adoption since Apple introduced the iPhone just five years ago. The amount of time people spend on their phones surfing the Web, using apps, playing games and listening to music has more than doubled in the last two years, to 82 minutes a day, according to eMarketer; the time spent online on computers will grow just 3.6 percent this year.

[The shifting grounds of privacy and publicy are still largely not well-understood. At the bottom is a change in identity, which technojournalists don’t want to dig into, except in Sunday supplement pieces advocating spending more time offline and the dangers of ersatz online relationships. However, at core, people’s perceptions of how and to what they are connected are primarily coloring our sense of self and well being: in general, we don’t view it as a privacy/publicy battleground. Facebook and other bad actors think of our interactions and movements as a resource to be stripmined for monetary gain, but the postnormal generation of social startups will more likely find a way to support us in our search for meaning and fulfillment, even if those companies make less money than Facebook would like to. And that search is more likely to play out for most on a proximal device, not the company’s 7lb laptop.]

“What has caught people off guard has been acceleration of the multitude of things that you can do with a smartphone,” said David B. Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the technology sector.

“The Web started in 1993, ’94,” he added. “It didn’t disrupt everything for a decade and a half. The smartphone revolution started a half decade ago. Because of the existence of the Web, it allowed the phone to have a disruptive impact in a shorter time frame.”

[Yoffie suffers from thinking about time as a steady state phenomenon. But this is the postmodern, and time is going much faster than it was in the ’90s. The rate of change and innovation (and, negatively, destruction of the old Earth) is happening at a much faster rate. I think this is related to the urban density coefficient that West and Bettencourt discovered: where cities’ productivity is superlinear, growing faster than the doubling rate of population. I think our perception of the passage of time is increasing superlinearly, as a function of the combined social density online and IRL.]

Just another piece about the disruptive impact of mobile devices, and unless you untie the narrative and recast using postnormal eyes, you might think we were still living in 2004, waiting for the social web to happen.

Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1969:

Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. 

The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone is alive in an earlier day.

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