The liberal arts

I’ve been asking myself how I got to where I am today.

What’s the unique piece in the crazy mix of education, life experiences and lucky breaks that made me who I am?

As counterintuitive as it may seem in the face of today’s connected reality and my role in the tech world, I sense that my core as an individual is grounded in the perspectives that I cultivated as a liberal arts student.

Giving myself the unencumbered freedom to plunge with abandon into literature, philosophy, and film. Studying the connections between art and architecture. Writing incessantly and debating fiercely on the most nuanced and obscure of topics.

Play acting the thoughts of the greatest thinkers and artists of all time.

Is there really a connecting thread between what I do today as a profession to that kid spouting Rilke, Baudelaire and e.e. cummings? Sartre and Artaud? Bergman and Kurasawa?

I think absolutely so.

Obviously, we are all products of our times.  When I emerged out of this period studying the history of thought and the human condition, I fell headfirst–and hard–into the beginnings of the software and tech revolution.

And I stayed there through each piece of its growth, from the first computer publishing programs to computer games to well…. today. Software publisher, market maker, online business builder, enterprise sales strategist, community and web thinker.

I’m still obsessed with contextual interconnections, with the power and fluidity of the nature of thought and behavior.

With the realization that what we say or create is less important than what is heard or seen. That the true visionaries are those that listen to the quiet pulses of the world, too faint for most to hear. That language extant from stories that touch emotions and spur reflection is always inadequate.

This is true in art. True in communications. True even in the architecture of platforms. And certainly true in the power of community and brands that touch the heart of the market.

Up to this very day, every time it is my turn at the whiteboard, or in front of a group, surrounded by brilliant technical minds, I lean on this perspective and strength. It is what makes me feel I can give it an authentic shot without fear of falling flat. Or fall prey to thinking that the status quo is something to hold onto.

That part of myself I believe came from the freedom as a student to play act my way through the thoughts and ideas of the world’s most disruptive minds. As while we look at classics as just that, in context they were each historically the crazy ones. The futurists. The free thinkers. The often misunderstood.

This is, of course, more nuanced than simply saying I got this from studying Camus or reading Faulkner or Charles Olson.

Even though I’ll admit, I cannot ride my bike over the Brooklyn Bridge without hearing Hart Crane, I rarely, reread many of these books.

The grasp of the power of the ineffable as a defining truth is what I made my own from my education. That was my takeaway.

Liberal arts as an unencumbered poise towards integrated thought and embracing completely the process of discovery.  A curriculum designed to pursue literacy as a vocation and fluidity of open thinking as a platform for lifelong learning.

I lean on this every day.

And I give it credit for those breakthrough moments when I get something just right, something that touches people with an idea or a product or something they can make their own.

I believe this point of view, this personal DNA if you will, had time to discover itself, back in those college and university days, tempered of course over time by the rigors of experience.

It’s intriguing that recently there’s been a mini-meme floating around, forecasting a resurgence of sorts for the liberal arts.

The idea is that with more leisure time, with distributed, flex-time workforces, a greater segment of the population will tend towards studying and appreciating the arts. That when automation removes countless jobs that today move data and paper around, there will be a shift towards lionizing the thinker and artist to the status of the maker and developer today.

I honestly doubt this will happen hard or fast, but I do think, in the best minds, business and technical alike, it’s already there.

Not a rereading per se of the masters in an isolated world of classrooms certainly. But an understanding that the integration of multidisciplinary thought is necessary to intuit our way forward in an always shifting world. That the arcane can be instructive. That the obvious is often the wrong course.

This is food for thought for all of us.

Just maybe liberal arts is already having a subtle renaissance, reimagined to our times, and in context to the world as it is today.

Try it on and see if works.

It does for me.


Dreaming the future

I had a waking dream about a world where our identities were completely decentralized.

Where there was a coin, like Bitcoin, that held securely who we were as we traveled around the web and lived life. Where URLs were irrelevant. Where place online didn’t matter.

Where the web just served me whenever I needed it with a tap on my phone. Where everything was secure and the middlemen across a multitude of industries were burnt toast.

Where democratization of information was not a risk, but a necessity to kick start change.

And where transparency always seemed the right choice without the horrid compromises that certifications and standards demand.

I thank Albert Wenger’s excellent post yesterday for this fueled inspiration and now, Fred Wilson’s post today, for the whisperings of a new and different world. And some telling comments from Brandon Burns on both posts.

I’m listening and can’t stop thinking how this impacts just about everything, from how we live to how we market our companies.

Of course, this idea of a distributed identity, decentralized coined reality and transactions is not the real view from my window today. It’s not something that is really actionable.

Or is it?

Is it behaviorally already there in pieces? Has the market and culture already shifted with technology as the lag?

Usually big shifts like the Internet happen–then culture slowly intersects, verticalizes them to our behavioral needs in every imaginable form.

Bitcoin and transactional systems aside. A protocol of value aside. Even the absolute of decentralized identity aside as well—change in the market is already afoot.

The web and the big identity platforms are unbundling before our eyes. Even the marketplace itself is following suit with transactions part of where we discover what we want, not where we necessarily go to find it.

Do people really make a choice between using Facebook, What’s App, Twitter, Instagram and others? Not at all.

Are our identities really tied to just one of them today? I don’t think so.

All of the platforms are sub- and supersets of each other. How we sign on is not really who we are.

Everyone is on Facebook and Instagram though the communities in each are very distinct. The same picture posted in each will gather a mostly different set of people. This is true from platform to platform and app to app.

Bitcoin or something akin to it will certainly happen. A decentralized identity—maybe—but the change they represent to how we live, work and market is already in process and our common ways of doing things in flux.

I discovered Wollit this morning. A Bitcoin-based, cause-focused fundraising site. It’s scant and early, not well explained yet just felt very right. A Mcluhan-esque approach where indeed it makes sense as form and content become one, feels like a norm that has already become part of us.

Even from an everyday use case, pre the coin becoming tamed and ubiquitous, it’s already a behavioral layer in how we act without understanding a thing about the protocol.

It’s front and center in how groups and communities are formed today.

Most all group structures are horrific, yet we form groups and communities every day. We cut through different platforms forsaking the idea of a centralized place with a basic need in time. (Check out Vintage141 as an antidote.)

The market already understands decentralized realities all to0 well in how we act and connect with people on the web.

I started this rant with a jolt, fueled by a rush of Bitcoin intellectual stimulus with decentralized identity as the chaser.

Bitcoin is a wondrous mess and the most interesting thing happening on the web today. Most don’t understand it, most will ignore it till smart people build services that do something that matter. And just works.

That’s our birthright as consumers to demand this.

When that happens, it will spread like crazy, as people already live a semi-decentralized reality today.  Its inefficient,  but we are comfortable with it. Most of us simply embrace and incorporate the new when it does the job or sparks the imagination.

When Bitcoin is stable, my bet is we will use it without the need for education. We already understand the idea and act on it in human terms every day.

But the big realization—and the big upside to me—is that everything is yet again going to get turned on its head. A whole generation of new apps and solutions will flood in. A whole new way to market and connect new values with customers will be discovered.

The market will simply take it in stride, and adopt it as their own as it just makes sense.

They did it without fuss or bother when social became platformed because the behaviors were already present and the upside, enormous. They will do it again I think for very similar reasons.




Context more than content is why networks matter

A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.

Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.

The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.

It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.

Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.

A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.

I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.

A simple test drive.

A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.

I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.

The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.

These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.

They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.

I’m not a believer.

If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.

People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.

But why would I want to do this?

Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?

I don’t think so.

Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.

The experiment was interesting though.

We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.

Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.

These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.

I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.

When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.

A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.

This feels less right now.

Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.

We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.

My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.



Shopping redefined…mobile popup stores


I walked by this storefront in the Meatpacking District late last week.

My first impression, like others on the street was—what? The big gotcha of course is that this is not a storefront at all, but the popup store itself.

It’s an interactive diorama of Kate Spade merchandise. A visualization of a giant mobile commerce site, store sized and street side. Big brand commerce wrapped up as an adult busy box for mobile shopping.

On the left side of the the window are the ‘Saturday’ line of products for sale on pegs. To the right, an over-sized touch screen complete with some funky mechanical sound effects for each action. You sort by item, check sizes and colors, confirm availability and then order.

IMG_2207This is a mobile shopping cart on growth hormones in a store window. It lets you browse, shop and purchase. To transact, you put in your cell number, and they text you a link to their mobile site to complete the sale.

The big difference, of course, is that this is literally driven by walk-by-foot-traffic, and what you buy is delivered to wherever you are in the city in an hour.

Quite cool. Clever certainly and speaks to innovations that are starting to happen on the streets of New York, as shopping enters a mobile renaissance and location based-retail gets turned on its head.

To be clear, this storefront is actually a promotion, jointly developed by Kate Spade, eBay and PayPal. It’s not a channel per se but event marketing launched a month ago to bring attention to the Saturday line of clothes, sold in-store and online.

I don’t know if the promotion is working. And I’m not certain that it it is going to sell many products through the mobile link, but there is something seriously disrupting going on.

There are a number of retail redefining concepts playing out here:

1. The web is not a place

ecommerce is not enough on its own. For all the brilliant plans to interrupt our lives with advertising, engage the enthusiasts with shareable and transactionable social objects, and the science of driving traffic online, there’s a gap between sites on the web and shoppers on the street.

Web sites just sit there. Stores wait for people to come to them. People want to buy products where they happen to be, when they feel like it. For Kate Spade, maybe that is Gansevoort Street. For New Yorkers, one-hour delivery is certainly better than standing in line to pay and schlepping stuff home.

The system of shop and buy, wait in line, pay and carry out, is vestigial behavior en route to extinction.

2. Transactions are the easy part

We’ve perfected taking payments efficiently from our customers. Transactions aren’t the issue. Connecting transactions to inventory and delivery wherever the customer may be is.

Kate Spade, consciously or not, has smashed a hole in the status quo of retail. By taking a mobile site and externalizing it onto the street, she makes it clear that this transaction, this store itself, could be just about anywhere. A wall in the subway station, even on the back of a cargo bike rolling around the neighborhood.

This is a touch screen kiosk fronting for a mobile store tied into local warehousing and delivery through the web.

Kate Spade is selling hand bags and fashion accessories. Next it could be wine or beer maybe, or who knows, a massage package arriving at the park for you with a blended green on the side and a customized I Love NY beach towel.

3. Urban markets are unique unto themselves

Kate Spade in Manhattan and in a mall in Ohio are different animals completely. Behaviorally and culturally distinct.

The most dense population centers demand their own shopping solutions. This popup might make little sense in suburban Illinois but it sure would work in Paris or Singapore. These are a massive market in their own right.

Human density is in itself an inspiration for innovation.

Cities are the perfect sandbox for discovering market proof for mobile solutions. They are quick becoming an open source petri dish for not just mobile, but a mashup of urban life, ubiquitous connectivity, transportation and shopping. Something is brewing on the streets big time.

4. Channels are nothing more than a moving consumer doorway into the supply chain

Depending on where you are and what you buy, channel is mutable to the situation.

Think about the Apple Store early innovation where the people on the floor could provide the product and handle the transaction. Primitive today but groundbreaking then.

Imagine if in store, a mobile app let’s you buy for delivery as you walk around without talking to anyone. Or try it on, get sold, then buy on the subway at a kiosk or online on the way home for delivery when you arrive. This idea of people on a personal map, carrying purchasing and organizational capabilities around with them wherever they are, connected directly into supply and delivery is unquestionably the future, unfolding right in front of us.

This is inevitable. In fact, it’s overdue as the behavior, the technology and market is already there.

5. Brand is the most powerful filter there is

This mashed up popup shop works because of the filtering power of the brand.

Not the Saturday line being introduced, but Kate Spade. Her clothes, her bags, her reputation is what let’s us plonk down dollars without trying the clothes on, seeing how the bag hangs from your shoulder. Video or no video, it’s trust and brand identification. With us giving her the ability to text us transactional links in the personal context of our cell phones.

There’s two other brand driven trends intersecting here:

–>Online brands (like Etsy) using popups to connect more directly with people where they are, not just online. Nothing builds a strong online brand and community like face to face contact in the real world.
–>Hyper local brands known in-neighborhood, moving into new locations with a low cost, highly branded and just easy model and test delivery system. Spot (even moving) distribution like these virtual popups.

These are the building blocks of the future

Mix up mobile ubiquity, transactional efficiency, predictable street traffic, brand recognition and delivery when and where you want it!  That is the joint power of mobile, and, in New York’s case, the added power of the bicycle delivery person getting there just in time.

This is a serious shake up of the traditional kiosk signage idea, connected to the mobile web on one side, people on the street delivering to you on the other.

If you live in NYC, check out these popups. The locations are here!

If you live in another dense urban area, do share variations on this theme with us. I’m certain that this is not the first of its kind but it’s the first for New York and I can assure you, many more are coming.



Taking data to the streets…





This is the traffic sign at the Chambers Street Subway Station.

Single functioned. Primitive even. Yet a significant game changer for New Yorkers.

Generations of city residents and commuters, up to 3M people a day, have stood dumbly waiting, sweating and broiling in the summer heat for the next subway train. No possible idea when or even which train is coming.

This display, at one level, is a Jetson-quality, sci-fi like glimpse of the future. A great example of big data trickling down to the mass market. This is the digital data runway fitting to the analog needs of our lives.

Of course this is also somewhat laughable and pathetic.

The signs are only in 25% of the stations. They went live in 2011 after 8 years in development. In 2011! — A decade after Google search put information ubiquity and e-commerce at our fingertips. One hundred and eight years after the trains starting running,

As much as I like knowing that an air-conditioned #2 train is approaching on a sweltering day, the sign is actually a techno tease. A drip of useful information in a desert of analog, real-life experiences cut off from the power of useful data and web connections.

As my fellow New Yorker Fred Wilson and I discussed online recently, the entire idea, as wonderful as it is, is woefully inadequate.

Hiding this info inside the pay turnstiles and not at street level is just bad human UX. Not using this data as a mashed up information hub with bus schedules, Hailo and Uber, Citi Bikes and time-to-walk-to-maps, makes it nothing more than a baby step of a solution. We are grateful for the crumbs of relief but impatient for the real thing

This story is a metaphor for the on/offline dichotomy that we are seeing more and more every day—and a well-lit sign pointing to where the market needs to go.

Online, we experience life like some suburban dream–squeaky clean, sanitized, orderly even within the confusion of the social nets. It’s curated, moderated and personalized. But also wildly intoxicating in its power, whether you are sitting in the office or at a park with free WiFi, pounding out a post or organizing your life for the week.

Each of us is the master of our abstracted and matrixed online world.

Offline it’s a disconnected mess.

Things are always broken, people are late. Connectivity is erratic, data incomplete, and the pace is arbitrary at best. There is an uneasy intersection of the transforming power of data, the web and the human touch.

This is not an app gap; it’s a data aggregation gap.

It’s a new way to think about data, the web and usability at the street level of our everyday lives. About human need where data begins to serve us as we move through life, not just as an abstraction of chores that surround our informational needs.

Businesses like Zipcar, Uber, Hailo and Citi Bikes are uniquely disruptive and personally empowering. Transportation at their core, but a bit more. True life changers for urban life.

They are painful to build, as the currency of value is dependent on the people who use the systems to behave responsibly. Logistics as a design element is no easy task. Tech is easy to get right. Human behavior is simply not programmable. .

I’ve been renting, hailing and riding a bit lately. I’m astounded by the power of these solutions and reminded in each case of these common building blocks.

-Mash ups of public and private data

Data from the subways and buses. Data from independent orgs like limo and cab companies. Data from APIs like Foursquare. These are the ingredients for the next generation system that will make the web belong to us on our own terms, on the streets where we live.

It may take another generation to get subway signs that truly deliver. Entrepreneurs, not the cities, may be the solution, curating value into discrete contextual pieces of urban life. The cities with smart leadership and cultural chutzpah will simply let the data out to be used as raw material.

-Human behavior and street level UX

People are messy. We are late. We don’t do what we should. We are the breaking point for every system that touches us and every system that requires us to feed the data pool so it flows smoothly.

It is what breaks for ZipCar using non-owned garages. What may for Hailo organizing third party cars and Citi Bike managing its neighborhood expansions and its inventory of bikes.

Street level design, the intersection of the data visualization, commerce, logistics and customer service wrapped in the culture of the consumer on the go will be the criteria for success. This is more subtle, more interesting, more empowering and considerably more difficult than fixing abandonment rates on a shopping cart.

The new expert architects for these solutions are not coming from web designers; they are using web design to serve these real-time events, grounded not only in space but in time, in the moment itself.

-Cracking the mobile language code

If your Zipcar is late or has a flat tire, their app, while great for ordering, is pretty useless for trouble shooting. You have to walk out of the garage, get a signal and call and wait.

We need a new mobile language. As easy as texting, yet as digitally powerful as a tag. Right now it’s like moving between two systems with a phone size display. No-one has designed this bridge across systems, data types and language. Yet!

Looking forward

Inspiring stuff. Changing not how we just shop or order stuff but how live better, informed, more efficiently.

A few years ago, we were all blogging about how the line between on and offline was blurring. As connectivity became ubiquitous we thought the wall was down.

We were simply wrong. It’s just getting started.

I touched on this in my Trading Places post a few weeks ago. My bet is it’s going to drag the orderliness of the web and reshuffle it into a just-in-time dynamic map of how we navigate our lives.

And just maybe, these early transportation point services will aggregate into platforms where we can share map-like slices of how we experience our days. Reshaping not only how we move around but how we order and organize our world in the moment it is changing.