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Fun fun fun ’til her daddy takes the iPhone away

dennis

“A smartphone can get you a ride but a car can’t get you a date,” blogged venture capitalist Fred Wilson, revealing a remarkable ignorance of the entire modern history of youth culture. “The smartphone wins.”

Wilson’s words were inspired by a November 2013 interview with another prominent VC, Marc Andreessen. America’s love affair with the automobile is over, Andreessen declared. As evidence he pointed to a putative sea change in young people’s attitudes toward cars: “Today, ask kids if they’d rather have a smartphone or a car if they had to pick and 100% would say smartphones. Because smartphones represent freedom. There’s a huge social behavior reorientation that’s already happening.” I’ve never found financiers to be reliable guides to what kids are up to, but in this case Andreessen was just recycling a view that has achieved meme status in recent years: Americans are losing their taste for driving, and that trend is particularly  pronounced among the young.

At about the same time Andreessen was opining about how young folks love their tech but don’t give a crap about their wheels, MTV was launching an extensive survey of the attitudes of millennials. The network interviewed nearly 4,000 people between 18 and 34. One of the topics discussed was cars and driving. MTV researcher Maureen Healy detailed the findings in a January 2015 event, as Business Insider reported:

[Healy] started the presentation by focusing on the “myths” about millennials and driving and promptly dispelling them. She noted that 80% of millennials get around by car most often and actually cover more ground than baby boomers and Generation Xers, due to millennials’ greater amount of spare time. As for the belief that millennials have little interest in getting a license and prefer other forms of transport, Healy pointed to the restrictive driving laws for people ages 15-21, such as restricted driving hours and the amount of people allowed in the car.

There were also some surprising (for those who thought millennials didn’t like cars) statistics generated in this survey. For instance, 70 percent of millennials enjoyed driving vs. 58 percent of boomers and 66 percent of Generation Xers. The study also found that 76 percent of millennials would rather give up social media for a day rather than their car while 72 percent would give up texting for a week rather than their car for the same period of time.

The study also found that 70 percent of millennials say they “like driving a lot,” 82 percent of millennials “find it exciting to buy or lease a new car,” 75 percent of millennials “feel like they couldn’t live without their current car,” and 85 percent of millennials look forward to one day owning their “dream car.”

The young still love cars, in other words, and that affection shows up clearly in recent sales figures. Americans bought a record number of cars in 2015 — 17.5 million of them, more than in any previous year — and leading the sales surge were young buyers, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday in an article titled “Younger Buyers Help Keep U.S. Car Sales Humming”:

Brett Howard walked into Galpin Ford in North Hills, Calif., on Black Friday to buy the first new car of his life. He drove away in a black Mustang coupe, one of the hottest models in U.S. showrooms. … “I love driving,” [27-year-old] Mr. Howard said, noting his peers are the same way. …

Mr. Howard said he isn’t a candidate for ride sharing or shuttling services like Uber Technologies Inc. Buying his first used car at 14 and fixing it up in the two years before he could drive, he feels one of the few places to “release your mind” is behind the wheel. The data suggest a lot of people feel the same way even if escalating student-debt levels and migration to urban city centers are somewhat delaying new-car purchases among people under 40. …

In 2010, as the industry was rebounding from one of the worst years in the postwar era, J.D. Power estimates those born between 1977 and 1994 (the firm considers them Gen Y) made up only 17% of sales, or 1.6 million vehicles. Five years later, that number has grown to 28% of sales, or 3.3 million vehicles. The impact of baby boomers and Gen Xers on industry volume has flat lined or fallen back during that same period.

What does the distant future hold for car ownership and driving? Beats me. But I would be wary of putting a lot of stock in the grand sociological predictions of venture capitalists, no matter how confidently they’re expressed. VCs are as foolish as the rest of us. They love data when it backs up their prejudices and ignore it when it doesn’t. I’d also be wary of confusing temporary behavioral changes tied to the economic cycle with deeper changes in attitudes.

As for Andreessen’s claim that smartphones represent freedom, I would guess the kids are a bit more nuanced in their views.

Image: Dennis Wilson and Chevy, from Two-Lane Blacktop.

The new search

touchscreen

Jenny Hendrix has a finely measured review of Sven Birkerts’s new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, in Boston Review. Toward the end, before calling for a new poetry, she writes:

The activity conducted in both church and marketplace is a kind of search, which is of course central to what this technology is for: not just Google, but GPS, dating apps, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon—all guide us toward what they think we want. The shift from cathedral to bazaar represents a shift from search as contemplation to search as a way for capitalism to extract value, exploiting information as an energy company might an oil well. … Birkerts’s response is to opt out to the extent that he can. But we might also confront these challenges by encouraging a change in the terms of the search. As I see it, the task of a new Transcendentalism would be less to actively oppose digital technology or save us from it than to, as Rilke put it, “change it into ourselves,” bringing to it the same kind of transformative, sustained attention that the Transcendentalists brought to the natural world.

“Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wondered in his introduction to the essay “Nature.” “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?” One might put the same question to the connected world of today. Most of us will have to use these tools, like it or not; why let someone else decide our relation to them? Transcendentalism was as much about resisting imposed structures of control and interpretation as it was about resisting a mechanized world. Perhaps the role of art now, the way it can best fill the spiritual voids left by our immersion in the digital, is to create for us an “original relation” to it.

The problem with tradition, as Emerson saw it, is that it too easily turns into a vintage clothing shop. We go in and pick up cheap readymades for our minds to wear. (“Why should we … put the living generation into masquerade out of [the past’s] faded wardrobe?”) The problem with escaping tradition is that it can leave us unmoored in the present, our course determined by the whims of the current. You tear down the cathedral only to find that the bazaar is a narrower prison. Before we can establish an original relation to digital technology, it strikes me, we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the past that the technology has been designed to hide.

How social media is shaping the 2016 race

kimhill

Here’s my original version of an essay on social media’s influence on politics that appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Politico Magazine earlier this month. I’ll be discussing the subject at an Institute of Politics Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on October 8 and, on November 12, at Yahoo’s Digital Democracy Conference at Drake University in Des Moines.

The 140-Character Candidate

Barack Obama killed it on social media this summer. On August 14, a Friday, he kicked off a steamy Washington weekend by releasing a pair of playlists, one for the nighttime, one for the day, through the White House’s new Spotify account. The presidential mixes were predictable but pleasant, a smooth fusion of dad rock and dad soul. In an accompanying blog post, one of the administration’s digital functionaries promised that more playlists were in the works, including “issue-specific” ones.

Two weeks later, on the evening of August 31, Obama turned himself into the country’s Instagrammer-in-Chief. While en route to Alaska to promote his climate agenda, the president took a photograph of a mountain range from a window on Air Force One and posted the shot on the popular picture-sharing network. “Hey everyone, it’s Barack,” the caption read. “I’ll be spending the next few days touring this beautiful state and meeting with Alaskans about what’s going on in their lives. Looking forward to sharing it with you.” The photo was liked by thousands.

Ever since the so-called Facebook election of 2008, Obama has been a pacesetter in using social media to connect with the public. But he has nothing on this year’s candidates. Back in June, the Hillary Clinton campaign issued its own official Spotify playlist, loaded with on-message tunes (“Brave,” “Fighters,” “Stronger,” “Believer”). Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts “Snapchat Stories” at stops along the trail. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos. Even grumpy old Bernie Sanders has attracted nearly two million likers on Facebook, leading the New York Times to dub him “a king of social media.”

And then there’s Donald Trump. If Sanders is a king, Trump is a god. Continue reading

Of drills and holes and Ronald Coase: the limits of sharing

drilling

“Why do people buy products?” asked Theodore Levitt, the celebrated Harvard Business School professor, at the start of his 1969 book The Marketing Mode. He suggested an answer:

Leo McGivena once said, “Last year one million quarter-inch drill bits were sold — not because people wanted quarter-inch drill bits but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.” People don’t buy products, they buy the expectation of benefits. People spend their money not for goods and services, but to get the value satisfactions they believe are bestowed by what they are buying. They buy quarter-inch holes, not quarter-inch drills. That is the marketing
view of the business process.

And so it began, this meme of drills and holes. Continue reading

Tech in schools: less is more

onetoone

Although many educators and school administrators, including those working in the U.S. Department of Education, continue to push schools to invest heavily in computer technology, the evidence of any benefit from such investments remains elusive. The biggest beneficiaries of heavy spending on school technology are technology firms. Students, meanwhile, may actually be harmed by having too much tech in the classroom, particularly when spending on hardware and software leaves less money for hiring and training teachers and improving school facilities.

The latest evidence on the effect of computer use on learning, and some of the strongest to date, comes in a large, international study released today by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Called “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” the study “shows that the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology,” writes the OECD’s director of education and skills, Andreas Schleicher. Computers’ “impact on student performance is mixed at best.” He sums up the study’s findings this way: Continue reading