Robert Scoble and Shel Israel – ‘A change is going to come’ (video)

1 Nov 2013

Authors of ‘Age of Context’ Robert Scoble and Shel Israel say a major transformation driven by technology will lead to more openness in society. Marketing, they say, will be less of a nuisance, and could be more useful to people.

Several years ago well-known blogger Robert Scoble and Forbes technology writer Shel Israel collaborated on a book called Naked Conversations, about how blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers. At the time they were heralding the transformation affecting business with the advent of social media.

In recent days Scoble and Israel’s latest collaboration Age of Context highlights how we’ve gone beyond social media to a time where sensors, pinpoint-accurate marketing driven by big data and wearable devices will make the future envisioned in Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’ seem wide of the mark and extremely naïve.

Instead they envision a world where a maker’s revolution will once again put skilled creatives like the village blacksmith at the heart of local economies, the new urbanists will flock back to the cities from the suburbs to be closer to better technologies and services in more gentrified downtown areas and all around us tiny, powerful radios and sensors will gather data ostensibly to make our lives better.

“Seven years ago we wrote a book that said this social media thing is going to be really big and businesses should stop calling it a fad because it’s going to change business – now it’s pretty good and Robert and I became well known because of our evangelism of that,” Israel explained. “Just seven years later social media is just a commodity, there is no business looking forward that doesn’t have social media as part of its strategy, it’s become a mature platform.

Robert’s out there and he’s looking at the leading edge and we started talking and he was seeing these other forces coming in and we started talking and we said ‘how do we define it?’”

The knowing economy

Scoble sums up the change: “Really what’s changed in the last seven years is that everybody has one of these now (holds up his smartphone) and because we have one of these we are generating a lot more location data than we’ve ever done. Google in the last year has 600pc more data about location today than it did a year ago.

“That is growing really quickly and add on social and add on sensors we have seven sensors on our devices and soon devices like Glass and on our wrist that have a lot more sensors . I’m seeing next year shirts that have sensors and shoes that have sensors and so we’re going to have a lot of sensors – and soon we’re going to also walk by little radios that are going to add context to where we are. New software is going to know where we are, who we are with what our context is?”

This prompts a question from me about how humans will be marketed to in the Age of Context. Will we have those ‘You could really use a Guinness right now’ moments as envisioned in Minority Report or will marketing become less of a nuisance and more of a service.

Israel says that in Age of Context they introduce a term called pinpoint marketing.  “Right now direct marketers profit very well if they get 2pc of the ads to the right places. The problem is 98pc of the rest of us really don’t like being shouted at and having our lives intruded upon. We now have the ability of marketers to only address you when you are likely like what they’re selling. So if you’re in a shopping centre; in the morning you might be offered 40pc off a cup of coffee and on your way home at night you might be offered 40pc off your first beer.

“In between that if there is a fire in the mall and first responder – a firefighter – comes in wearing a device like Google Glass, instead of seeing ads for coffee and beer the wearer of Glass is going to know the context of why he’s there; he’s going to find the injured people, where the hazardous material is. That’s what it’s coming to – it means though for a marketer if they can tell you what you want, when you want, based on the time of day, where you are, who you are with, what your preferences are and it’s going to know that with pinpoint accuracy.”

Pointing to his own pair of Google Glass, Scoble said: “If this [new] world is going to be about advertising then I’m not going to wear this thing. If I’m walking around and getting bombarded by ads … it is about intent and commerce. I want to say ‘bring me a beer’ or ‘bring me a Chinese salad sandwich’ and have it come right to me, and that’s already started – it’s changing how we live in cities. Shel calls it the new urbanist – because people are moving into the core of the city to get these new technologies – we used be suburb – my dad wanted to live in the suburbs not in the downtown area because it wasn’t the nice place to live, so that’s a shift.

“We talk about cars and how cars are changing because of sensors and big data and location data. The Google self-driving car needs to know where it is to work and it wouldn’t work without Google mapping system and on and on.”

The next industrial revolution

I point to the current maker revolution where innovators as young as eight are creating new devices and services using items like Arduino dev boards, 3D printing and their imagination to come up with new consumer products and ask them both do they believe we are witnessing a new kind of industrial revolution.

Scoble pointed out that the credit card swiper that he and Israel use to sell their books was designed in their local TechShop, a place where consumers can get access to 3D printers, milling machines and CAD/CAM software.

“What that means is the cost of building a company is going way down. The square unit we used to take our book sales was designed in the TechShop, the actual unit and credit card swiper. This is letting people build companies for very little money.

“You’re right, it is democratising company-building, no longer do you have to build headquarters in Silicon Valley right next to the money; because Sand Hill road had all the money and that’s why Intel, Apple and Cisco started there because they needed access to that capital.

“Now you can start a company making sensors for ten, twenty or 100k dollars, go pro and start, and its getting cheaper.

Hail the new urbanists

According to Israel the new urbanists are changing the American economy at a time when it is really needed. “For one thing, as wealth goes into the cities, young parents are demanding better education. They don’t care about cars – they’ll use a service like Zipcar or Uber or something like that. They would rather have a tool like a smartphone and the government is learning it can be more responsive, efficiently with more citizens by being transparent at least on municipal level.

Israel points to design software from Autodesk that is being accessed by non-architects and designers to get more information on building projects in their area.

“People are beginning to look at it and say ‘wait a minute, if you build that building near the school my kids go to we’re going to have a traffic problem. Before now these decisions were all siloed.

“This is what’s happening, it’s exciting for the US whose economy keeps teetering, for Ireland which has certainly had economic issues.

“There’s a hope that something is going to happen and it will be transformational and it may come much faster than people think and it will come from people driving up rather than from the top down.”

Illustration by Think Visual

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years