Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

Rapid evolution of AI

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and it is believed that life began to emerge about 800 million years later. Humans evolved from apes around three million years ago, with modern humans emerging only about 200,000 years ago.

The evolution of computers is generally described in generations. The first generation (1940–1956) used vacuum tubes and could take up the space of an entire room. The second generation (1956–1963) replaced vacuum tubes with transistors, making computers smaller and faster. The third generation (1964–1971) introduced the integrated circuit, making computers even smaller and faster. The microprocessor heralded the fourth generation of computers (1972–2010). This allowed for the development of desktops and laptops. The fifth generation (from 2010 to present) has seen the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI).

In eighty years, we moved through five generations of computing. Between 1956 and 2015 there was a one-trillion-fold increase in computing performance, according to Business Insider. The Apollo Guidance Computer that landed humans on the moon had the equivalent power of two Nintendo entertainment systems. The Apple iPhone 4 had the same power as the Cray-2 supercomputer, launched in 1985. In 1956, the IBM 350 storage disk drive was the size of a large wardrobe and stored about 3.75 MB of data. You could rent it for $3,200 per month. In 2020, Google Drive offered 15 GB of storage for free and 100 GB for $1.99 per month.

Cuneiform is the earliest known language and emerged about 3,400 years ago in the area we now call Iraq. Cuneiform was written with a reed stylus on wet clay tablets. These tablets still exist and are perfectly readable, and as British philologist and Assyriologist Irving Leonard Finkel assures us, they will exist long after today’s computer storage has vanished. In achieving speed, power and greater capacity, computer technology has traded longevity, durability and reliability. A typical processor or piece of storage has an extremely short life expectancy of about five years. The resource and waste implications of this are enormous. If a clay tablet had a life expectancy of five years, we would have had to replace each tablet about 680 times since the information was first written down.

Computer technology has had—and will continue to have—a ferocious appetite for energy and material resources. I have written previously about the enormous amounts of e-waste that we are producing each year. As AI matures, this waste is likely to expand with great rapidity. It has taken modern humans 200,000 years and about 10,000 generations to get where we are today. In five generations, spanning 80 years, AI has emerged. Driven by computing power, the pace of everything has speeded up enormously. We are using the earth’s resources at unsustainable levels. We must slow down or else we will crash the earth.

Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing – with Irving Finkel

The Evolution of Storage Devices

How the computing power in a smartphone compares to supercomputers past and present

How many generations of computers are there?

Evolutionary history of life

Why does so much software suck?

In the United States, tractors built during the 1980s and 1990s are in big demand. “Tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software,” Adam Belz wrote for the Star Tribune in January 2020.

The tractors are extremely reliable and if something breaks down you can get out and fix it or call in a local mechanic. When new tractors break down the farmer must wait for a highly expensive technician to come out who will need to use a computer to help them fix the problem.

Half of the problems faced by car owners are caused by software, according to a 2019 study by J.D. Power. “It’s an issue that J.D. Power claims is down to manufacturers’ desperation to introduce new technology and thus increasing the number of ‘potential problem areas’,” James Fossdyke wrote for I can relate. My car keeps telling me I have low pressure in my tires. I don’t. We kept bringing it into the garage only to find out there was no issue. “I remember the days when we used to test the pressure with our foot against the tire,” the mechanic said, half-jokingly. That’s what I do now.

When it comes to the essentials, it seems, the difference between a 1980 tractor and a 2020 tractor is not that great. However, the difference between a 1980 tractor and a 1950 tractor would have been huge. A 1950 tractor would be an antique compared to a 1990 tractor. For many types of farms, a 1990 tractor does the job just as well as a 2020 tractor and is much simpler and cheaper.

In the last forty years there has been a huge investment in information technology. At the same time, productivity and return on assets have declined. “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” Nobel laureate Robert Solow stated in 1987. Between 2010 and 2020, productivity growth in the UK was 0.3% according to the Royal Statistical Society (RSS). “The UK has just had its worst decade for productivity growth since the early 1800s,” Harriet Grant wrote for The Guardian in 2019.

We have too much software and too many features and we’re racing ahead embracing smart speakers, the Internet of Things and AI. In nine out of ten organizations I’ve consulted with over the years, information technology was bought based on magical assumptions. It was as if the very existence of the technology within the organization would create magical productivity and other amazing things. Except that it didn’t.

Most software sucks. Humans are really bad at designing software that is useful and usable because humans are really bad at choosing software that is useful and usable. Software and technology are still caught up in the features arms race, the power, bandwidth, storage arms races. So few of us take the time to stand back and say: What do we actually need this thing to do?

For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity
Tractors built in 1980 or earlier cause bidding wars at auctions.

In-Car Tech Causing Reliability Problems, Study Finds

And the statistic of the decade award goes to … 0.3%

What are you going to remove today?

It’s not that difficult to create or to add something. To remove what needs to be removed, to see what is unnecessary, what is getting in the way, that is such an unappreciated and deep skill. Not just that, to remove requires bravery. The old logic goes: ‘This thing is here. It must be useful.’ Once things are created and published they gain a status, an invisible protective layer.

Some years ago, I read an article by Ben Holliday, who then worked for the UK government, which mentioned the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman developed a philosophy called Share Space, which involved removing all traffic lights, signs, and road markings from an area in a city. That was brave. Think of all the people who would have been against that. Think of the dangers. More pedestrians might get injured, killed even. That was a potentially life or death decision. “The results were the opposite of what most people expected,” Ben wrote. “The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.”

Progress bar indicators are a standard element in most digital designs. It’s just assumed that they’re a good thing, that they help people navigate through a particular process. Ben and his team observed that most citizens didn’t even notice the progress bars and when they did, many got nervous or felt intimidated by them. They removed the progress bars. Their task completion rates and time-on-task remained the same. They had taken something from the environment and it wasn’t missed.

We should allocate some time every week deciding what we are going to remove. In a mature environment, most of our time should be spent maintaining because of what already exists will far outnumber what is new. To get to this frame of thinking we need to understand what success is. For Hans Monderman and his colleagues it was pretty clear what their goal was: “to create a high-quality environment offering equally high quality of life, serving people, not traffic,” explains traffic engineer Sjoerd Nota.

If your job is to design, if your job is to write, then you will likely be measured on what you have designed, what you have written.
“Oh, look, here comes Mary. She’s one of our designers. What have you been up to recently, Mary?”
“We’ve just removed all the progress bars from the website.”
“Oh, interesting … Ah, here’s Tom, another one of our designers. Hi Tom! What are you up to at the moment?”
“We’re about the launch a new feature …”

Those who create and launch are the people who are rewarded and looked up to because we still have a culture that rewards the production of things over everything else. To review, to maintain, to remove—this is all seen as lesser work. If we were measuring what really matters that would not be the case. In one town where Hans Monderman’s Shared Space philosophy was implemented, the number of accidents fell by 46% and the number of crash-related injuries by as much as 83%.

We need to truly identify what success is, and it is usually something out there in the world of the customer, rather than something inside in the world of the organization.

Dark side of customer obsession

Most of my career has been based on a simple idea: If we became more customer-centric instead of organization-centric, then things would be better for everyone. I still believe in the basic concept but have slowly and painfully come to realize that when customer centricity becomes customer obsession, a highly stressful workplace is likely to evolve.

Away creates “thoughtful luggage for modern travel”, whatever that means. Away makes OK luggage and charges very high prices for it. They obviously pump lots of money into marketing, particularly influencer marketing. I saw a presentation about them a couple of years ago and immediately thought that this was fake and shallow stuff. You’re paying twice the price for the “brand”.

Away claims to be customer obsessed. Maybe. What is clear from a report in The Verge is that Away has a toxic, bullying culture driven by their CEO, Steph Korey. Steph is passionate and super hard-working herself. She believes that customer support staff, in particular, must work relentlessly hard to keep customers happy at all costs.

When Steph decides that her staff must work extra hours and not take time off or vacations, she introduces it by saying that she knows they “are hungry for career development opportunities.” She finishes off her list of unfair and unjust demands by stating: “I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity.”

Relentlessly pushing, bullying, intimidating and firing employees seems to be the norm in customer-obsessed companies. Amazon is the poster child of this depraved behavior. A recent report has shown that Amazon is injuring its workers in the US at a rate twice the national average. Another recent investigation found that Amazon had been dodging workplace safety regulators for years.

Steph Korey describes her style as “modern leadership” and she has lots of supporters out there. Henry Innis is a self-described founder and claimed he didn’t see anything wrong with Korey’s behavior and that “Startups are hard,” even though Away was founded in 2015. CEO John Zettler is really impressed by Korey’s behavior and her “hustle”. Peter Pham, another founder, didn’t see any problem with her approach. Sending bullying messages at three in the morning, that’s just what it takes.

Life should not be constant obsession. That’s just far too stressful. Working warehouse workers and customer support staff to the bone, while paying them the most minimum wage possible, is not “modern leadership.” It’s medieval barbarity. We are being taught as customers that we can have anything we want whenever we want it, and at a great price. The cost of our convenience is increasingly being borne by millions of low-paid, stressed-out workers, whose every move is often monitored by AI systems. And for what? So that Jeff Bezos can build a bigger rocket to Mars? Or some founder dude can buy a bigger yacht?

Emotional baggage: Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment

Ruthless Quotas at Amazon Are Maiming Employees

Amazon dodged workplace safety regulators for years, investigation shows

The great personalization con

I still have occasional nightmares where after I have given a presentation on how to improve customer experience by focusing on what matters most to customers, two marketers walk up to me. One looks me in the eye and says: “What about branding?” The other smirks and says: “What about personalization?”

What about personalization? It was the dream, the nirvana, the golden gate of marketing and communication. For those personalization fans I often had the unfortunate reply: “Your website is crap. If you personalize it, you’ll have personalized crap.” Most organizations can’t properly manage a basic, non-personalized website. How on earth are they going to manage a personalized environment which requires a whole other level of skills and ongoing investment?

It’s great theory to collect all this rich customer data and then micro-target people with the exact right marketing. However, to design and maintain such personalization systems takes a tremendous effort. I have seen personalization situations that required four to five times the investment in personnel than that required for running the same non-personalized website. And these people are not cheap. You need data analysts who can keep the data clean and accurate. You need designers, developers and content professionals continuously improving the environment, because personalization is notoriously difficult to optimize for.

Personalization is really, really hard work, fraught with privacy concerns, and an unparalleled ability to annoy the hell out of customers. Its very strength requires a deep, intimate knowledge of personal information, and micro-targeting can very quickly feel like stalking. Most personalization projects I’ve come across over the years have been big failures.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Gartner predicts that 80% of marketers will abandon their personalization efforts by 2025 “due to lack of ROI, the perils of customer data management or both.”

Part of the reason personalization and other ad targeting isn’t nearly as effective as the ads said it would be is because the customer is getting smarter and less trusting of brands. Studies in the UK indicate that in 2019 only 25% viewed advertising favorably, down from almost 70% in the 1960s. Advertisers are often ranked at the bottom of any league of professions. In the US about one in four people use ad-blocking software.

Collecting personal data has been an obsession of most organizations, whether commercial or governmental. Luckily, most of this data is never used because most organizations are simply incompetent when it comes to managing data. Most of those who have managed to use personal data have done it so badly they have done huge damage to societal and brand trust.

Think about personalization for a moment. It should be about being personal, which should be about truly understanding someone, having the ability to have sympathy and empathy for them, being able to know when a conversation is a good idea and when it’s best to stay quiet. Software is good at a lot of things, but being a good, understanding, decent human being isn’t one of them.

Gartner Predicts 80% of Marketers Will Abandon Personalization Efforts by 2025

If advertising was a parent

Kids! Get inside! Enough of that fresh air and frolicking around playing some useless chase. Inside now! Don’t you know you haven’t done your PlayStation yet? Five hours every day. Why do I have to keep hammering on about it? I’ve been telling you this since you were toddlers: Endlessly play computer games. Endlessly buy computers games and then endlessly buy accessories. Eye stress is good. Debt is good. Late nights up in front of the TV or computer consuming is good for the economy. Play your part!

Food! What’s this about healthy food? Don’t you know I can’t make the same money on healthy food as you can make on ultra-processed food? Not to mention the fact that I can design junk to be chemically much more addictive. Don’t you have any consideration for me? I can make five times the profit if you eat that junk food than those crappy vegetables. Come on. Get with the program. Have you had your liter of Coke yet? How many times do I have to tell you? Just stay away from that water, right. Okay, if you must, at least drink it from a plastic bottle, none of that tap stuff. Don’t you realize how much effort we’ve gone to to undermine confidence in tap water?

These clothes of yours. You’re wearing them too long. Haven’t you heard of fast fashion? If you don’t have at least two pieces of clothes in your wardrobe that you’ve never worn, then you’re just not with it. It took a lot of work to get people to buy five times as many clothes as they did thirty years ago and to wear them half as long. Single use, that’s the way to go. Just wear it once then throw it away. Then you’re with the program.

I need to talk to you about your rubbish. You’re not producing enough of it. When I see the bin overflowing with plastic and other junk, it makes my heart glad, because then I know you’re consuming. Then I know I’ve brought up another generation to be proud of. You’ve gotta think consumption. Every time you’re bored, pick up a product. Go online so that I can track you. Every time you get hungry, pick up a sugar-saturated snack. Banish hunger. Banish from your life any inconvenience. You’ve got to learn that you’re worth it, just do it, be with it and take what you want when you want. Debt is good.

See the other kids. They’re obese. They’re eating the junk. They’re addicted to sugar. They’re spending every single minute they can online, or gaming, or watching TV. See the effort they’re putting in to being good consumers. But you, you prefer to go for a walk. You’re talking about veganism. How on earth am I going to monetize veganism? You’re worried about the climate. I’m worried about you. Too much conscientiousness. Where’s the fun? Life is branding. Debt is good.

Google: from ‘Don’t Be Evil’ to ‘Be Evil’

“Don’t be evil” has been the Google tagline, mission statement, guiding philosophy from practically day one of its existence. In 2018, it quietly dropped the “don’t” from the tagline. Google was entering a new phase of sucking up personal data and sucking up giganormous profits.  

Do you remember back in those innocent, hippy, don’t be evil days, when Google placed the ads in the right-hand column, so as to clearly differentiate them from the organic search results? Ah, those naïve do-gooder, don’t-be-evil hippies that they were. We didn’t deserve them. Thing was: very view people looked in the right-hand column and even fewer people would click. So, poor Google was only making billions from ads instead of the gazillions they dreamt of. So they quietly moved the ads to the top of the central column. And just so that everyone would know that these were ads, they placed a tiny weensy sign saying: “Ad”. Such ethical dudes.

But that was just the beginning for the rebranded “Be Evil” empire. Not satisfied with greying the line between ads and organic search results, Google decided to get into the highly lucrative Mafia Don business of shaking down companies for protection money. “When Google puts 4 paid ads ahead of the first organic result for your own brand name, you’re forced to pay up if you want to be found,” Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp states. “It’s a shakedown. It’s ransom.” Of course, “Google doesn’t let you target any of their own trademarks this way, and won’t even let you mention ‘Google’ in your ad text,” John Gruber points out. No way. If someone searches for Google, there’s no way Google will allow Microsoft to buy ads promoting Microsoft products. That’s just wouldn’t be fair to Google.

Like all good Mafiosi, Google targets vulnerable industry after vulnerable industry looking for their protection money. Take travel. “TripAdvisor has one of the best link profiles of any commercially oriented website outside of perhaps,” Aaron Wall explains. “But ranking #1 doesn’t count for much if that #1 ranking is below the fold. Or, even worse, if Google literally hides the organic search results.” The result? Google grows its ad revenues 20% a year in a global economy growing at under 4%, and the stocks of Expedia and TripAdvisor fall off cliffs.

What to do? Unless governments truly tackle Google, Facebook et al, there’s not much you can do. Maybe there’s something. Do you have customers? If you do, then treat those current customers extraordinarily well. Make it a rule that the longer they stay with you the better you treat them: better discounts, better service, better everything. Current customers are like mini search engines. If they start promoting you on social media then that’s one of the best possible ways of you getting found, trusted, believed.

Your current customers are so incredibly precious today. Don’t be like 90% of organizations who mistreat, overcharge and exploit their current customers. Because if your current customers are out there searching for the types of products and services that you currently deliver to them, well that’s not a good sign for your future viability, is it?

Brands vs Ads

Static or database? Our love of complexity

A database-driven website is a bit like having a seven-seater car. If there’s only two in your household do you really need it? Perhaps a simpler, more energy-efficient static website is better? I used to make these sorts of arguments a lot about 15 years ago, and then for whatever reason I stopped making them and I started using databases for our websites because everyone else was doing it and it was more convenient.

Most websites today are database driven. This means that the content, code and other components are stored in a database. The pages on the site don’t actually exist permanently. Rather, when you click on a link for a page or type the URL in, the page is dynamically created, going into the database to fetch all the relevant content, code and components. A database website is very effective where things are likely to be constantly changing – for example, stock levels or prices for a particular product.

The alternative to a database website is what is called a ‘static website’. This is a website whose pages permanently exist as HTML. A great many websites do not need to be dynamically created. They can work perfectly well as static sites. The benefits of this approach are that a static site tends to be more reliable and has a lesser environmental impact because there’s less processing and transfer of data, as well as the fact that a static page can load much faster.

In 2018, I decided to compare benefits for a static versus database website. When we tested, it typically took a static page 2.9 seconds to download on a smartphone. However, using a database-driven approach it took 5 seconds. That’s a big difference, but our site was already very simple and lean. I have seen analysis that indicates that a static website can be up to ten times faster than an equivalent database-driven one. Also, with the static website there was 378 KB of data being transferred, while with the database-driven website there was 701 KB. Ours is a tiny website with very slim and lean design. Imagine all the energy and time that could be saved if the millions of websites that don’t need to be database driven migrated to static.

So, if static websites are better in many situations, why aren’t they used more? Why has the migration been in the opposite direction? Because of progress. Because a database is more ‘advanced’ than a static website, so a database must by definition be better, mustn’t it? We become willing zombies in the march of progress, assuming that innovation and what is new are by definition progress. We are so enamored by more power and more processing and more complexity that we believe that more always delivers better. We must become much more questioning of innovation and new things. How much is needed to do the job? If we can do the job with 1X power, why do we need something with 10X, where 9X is wasted?

The Department of Useless Images

I’ve been asking people to send me examples of where digital government is working well. I’ve been getting lots of great examples but some maybe not so good. One suggestion was a link for a website in a language I don’t speak. When I clicked on the link I was confronted with one of those typical big images that you see on so many websites. I thought to myself: I’m going to try and understand this website based on its images.

The big image was of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman walking down the street while talking on her phone. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat. Hmm … Something to do with telecommunications, perhaps? Why would they choose a woman, instead of a man, or a group of women and men? She’s married, I deduced by looking at the ring on her finger. What is that telling me? And what about her age? Why isn’t she younger or older? And why is she alone? Questions, questions, but I’m no Sherlock Holmes. I couldn’t deduce anything.

I scrolled down the page. Ah, three more images. The first one is a cartoon-like image of a family on vacation. Hmm … The next one is of two men and one woman in a room. One of them has reached their hand out and placed it on something, but I can’t see what that something is, because the other two have placed hands on top of the hand. It’s a type of pledge or something, a secret society, perhaps? Two of them are smiling and the third is trying to smile. What could that mean? And then the final picture is of a middle-aged man staring into the camera, neither smiling nor unsmiling, with a somewhat kind, thoughtful look.

I must admit after perusing all the visual evidence I have absolutely no clue what this government website is about. So, I went and I translated it. It’s about the employment conditions and legal status of government employees. Now, why didn’t I deduce that from the images? I’m sure Sherlock would have cracked that puzzle.

The Web is smothering in useless images. These clichéd, stock images communicate absolutely nothing of value, interest or use. They are one of the worst forms of digital pollution because they take up space on the page, forcing more useful content out of sight. They also slow down the site’s ability to download quickly. In the last ten years, webpages have quadrupled or more in file size, and one of the primary reasons for this is useless image proliferation. If organizations are filling their websites with these useless, information-free images, are they also filling their websites with useless, information-free text? Are we still in a world of communicators and marketers whose primary function and objective is to say nothing of value and to say it as often as possible? And whatever you do, look pretty.

“Hello. Is that the Department of Useless Images?”
“We have this contact form and we need a useless image for it.”
“How about a family cavorting in a field of spring flowers with butterflies dancing in the background?”

They say a picture paints a thousand words but sometimes it’s a thousand words of crap.

Are your Web metrics reliable?

Web analytics are highly susceptible to error, manipulation and misinterpretation. They should never be depended on as the sole source of insight.

“Facebook might be hosting upwards of 8 billion views per day on its platform, but a wide majority of that viewership is happening in silence. As much as 85 percent of video views happen with the sound off, according to multiple publishers,” Digiday reported in 2016.

The conclusion many people made when they heard these statistics was that they needed captions for their videos. I was a bit more skeptical. Having dealt with Web metrics since the late Nineties I had come to approach with them with a lorryload of salt. My first question was: Are most video ‘views’ real?

Facebook just settled a legal complaint which stated that, “The average viewership metrics were not inflated by only 60%–80%; they were inflated by some 150 to 900%.” That’s a lot of inflation. These fake statistics had real consequences.

“In order to beat YouTube, Facebook faked incredible viewership numbers, so CollegeHumor pivoted to Facebook,” Adam Conover states. “So did Funny or Die, many others. The result: A once-thriving online comedy industry was decimated.” Of course, these fake statistics were no accident. “You’ve had 18 measurement errors in recent years, all of which went your way,” Terence Kawaja explained to a Facebook ad business ethics executive. “That’s not a mistake, it’s a strategy.”

Web analytics in general are incredibly flaky. In the early days, we had HITS (How Idiots Track Success), which were an absolutely useless metric but were quoted widely because HITS were the BIGGEST number in the metrics report. This reflected the culture of metrics and the Web in general: chasing BIG numbers. I’ve had people tell me that they can’t delete out-of-date and incorrect content because it would reduce the number of visitors to their site. Others refuse to make their sites simpler because they’re wedded to metrics about getting people to spend lots of time on the site, clicking on links and scrolling and stuff. The fact that, on a badly organized site, time spent is more a measure of failure is rarely recognized in the mania for BIG numbers.

Today, most websites don’t have much of a clue how many people visit anyway. You may have lots of ‘users’ but the same person using your site on a smartphone and then a laptop is likely two users in your stats. Recently, Matt Hobbs, head of frontend development for GOV.UK, explained that there are 50–55 million user visits a month to GOV.UK. But they don’t know how many citizens this represents.

A great many digital teams are unaware of what is actually happening on their website or app. This is one more reason why you need to observe your customers regularly. It gives you real-world context through which you can understand your Web analytics, and it helps you identify where flaws or misinformation may be occurring. Regular observation of real customers doing real things on your website or app is so essential. It gives you the crucial context of the reality of use.