Embarking on the NEW Love Boat

In an era where customer centricity is the nes plus ultra of a world where everything is quickly becoming digital, it would seem like a godsend to have a captive audience for 10 minutes. An hour. Or a day. How about having a captive audience for an entire week? Nirvana + Shangri La!, at least from the POV of the seller, right?

In August, my extended family and I literally got off the boat. That is, we disembarked from an extended family cruise to Alaska for my mom’s 80th birthday. And the lessons – and expectations – for a 2017 digital world were everywhere.

Among ten of us, we represented a moderately broad cross section of tastes, ages, mobility, etc. Given the relatively high dollar amounts (for us) that we spent – not to mention the hours spent researching competitors – we expected quite a plush, state of the art ride.

The boat in question (constructed in 2005 – curiously christened by Melania Trump, of all people – and fully refurbed in 2013) was certainly new-ish. Ours (can I call her “she”) certainly was up to date in the PHYSICAL world. And, if not entirely “exciting and new”, certainly NOT the old-timey “Love Boat” of 1979, either. But in 2016 – not 1979 – she was not up to date in the DIGITAL world.

Embarking in Seattle, in fact was like being transported to a technology and process-level time machine to the 1990s. The first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of people on board. A LOT.... A couple thousand, to be more precise – but generally, that’s OK in a multi-level vessel that’s as long as three football fields.

And our stateroom was fine, space-wise. For sure, it was cramped, but my family of four generally “does cramped” pretty well. We camp together in a 6 x 14 foot wooden tent cabin every summer near Yosemite, and it’s one of the highlights of our year, bonding family togetherness, taking the art-of-cozy to new levels. And certainly our starter home – a 984 sq. ft. cottage was often akin to living on a boat... ah Bay Area real estate.

But I digress... The Love Boat... Digital ... 1990s...

The first lesson of all cruise ships (or hotels, or planes, for that matter) is that all WiFi should be FREE. For heavens’ sake, like Nike, just DO IT! As a loss leader! It’s 2017! It’s the ONRAMP to the digital world. It’s good! It’s OK! At the very least, enable a free TXT option at sea – “paging Mom – where r u? Bow or stern?” The only conceivable, nostalgic silver lining to this scenario is, of course, is that the kids get to learn the lesson of “making a plan and sticking to it”.

One you get settled on any cruise ship, the next question is: What time is it? Cocktail time! How will you pay? We got kitted out with plastic, credit-card style ID cards because she was – as the clerk at check-in informed us – “A Cashless Boat”. Awesome – Code Halos here we come! WRONG. Part of me wanted a witty, Isaac-style bartender (complete with a knowing smile, and double-index finger guns). Instead, after the 5-second “hey ho!” of our order, our Isaac spent 3 minutes, with his back turned, swiping at a cash register, only to have to produce a paper receipt for us to sign for the tax (even if you go “All you Can Drink”, you still have to pay the tax when you’re off the coast of Washington in the Straits of Juan de Fuca).

Again, this struck me as totally `90s orientated. The bartenders/staff are basically reduced to paper-pushing inputters, instead of the hoped-for Isaac of legend: “Hey! Where are you guys from! What can I get for you? Do you like bloody Marys, pina coladas? (pour) You’re gonna see some orcas on this trip (pour)! Stunning glaciers (pour)! Hey, that mountain off the ship (pour) is the northernmost point of (mix, shake) the Olympic Peninsula! God bless America, here’s your martini! (Or was it a Bloody Mary? – who cares, this guy/gal is awesome... He had me at the hale-and-hearty “Hey!”)... “Come on back when you’re ready for your next one... Rob is it?”

As my colleague Ben Pring would say: “Assuming that in a bot-full-future DNA-life-based-forms (that’s you and me mate) want to deal with other DNA-life-based-forms, I’d say giving “good meeting” is going to be a pretty important job requirement in the second machine age.

This same sequence of 5% of the time “giving good face” versus the remaining 95% manually dealing with a 90s style reservation system, computer, etc. cropped up in various guises – over and over again. At the dinner hostess station. Making an off-boat excursion reservation. My 80-year-old mom getting jawed at because the “free WiFi upgrade package” she expected for my dad and her – promised over the phone by the over-zealous cruise saleslady months previously – never materialized. Says the witchy twenty-something behind the counter: “Oh? Some sales lady said it was included? Never heard of it/her/we have no record”. For the love of Pete -- it is ZERO-MARGINAL-COST WiFi – not a kilo of Beluga caviar! Just give it to her!

Lest anyone think I’m griping about a “first-word problem”: you’re absolutely right. I am. It’s a total luxury to even be able to take a cruise in the first place. And the staff that works the ships are undeniably hard workers, many of them go-getters from countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal, etc. So, like many office workers using the power of digital and systems of intelligence to eliminate rote-and-repetitive tasks, why not take away the lame dumb terminal/process drudgery and make them better aligned with the customers and what REALLY makes them tick? Or, even just start with a little – friendlier “face time”, and less “transaction time”?

All in all, it was a great trip. The family time was awesome, my mom (celebrating her 80th) really enjoyed herself, the boat didn’t sink ... and that little stateroom was surprisingly comfortable. But these floating fortresses of captive attention need a serious digital reboot to stay ahead in the delight (and repeat –revenue generation) sweepstakes.

Clearly, it’s time to disrupt these boats... You have a captive audience at your disposal for creative, personalized engagement for AN ENTIRE WEEK. A new, digital opportunity and paradigm is staring you in the face for radically new, improved, and differentiated process-level change. My family and I were Exhibit A. Time for the creative destruction to begin, NOW!

(UPDATE: The future MAY be here. I was prompted to write this blog post – and delighted – upon seeing this clip in the New York Times today from CES: “Coming to Carnival Cruises: A Wearable Medallion That Records Your Every Whim”. Yes – absolutely right. These guys get it. They’re “disrupting the ship” with their so-called “medallions” – sort of like Disney’s Magic Bands. Good for Carnival – or should call them by their nickname – “The Fun Ship”? Today – it’s a start. Tomorrow, give us Isaac and the NEW Love Boat. If not, there’ll be tens of thousands of icebergs in the shape of customers ahead.)

The Future of Translation

"The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgment." Brian Eno

In the way that thinking about the future often leads you to think about the past, recent advances in speech recognition http://huff.to/2epmVpy and language translation http://bit.ly/2dUranV software have had me thinking about my old French teacher, Richard “Piggy” Marsden.

Back in the mid 1970’s it was Piggy’s unenviable task to try and teach me and my classmates the difference between feminine and masculine past participles when all I really cared about was the difference between the Sex Pistols and The Clash. [Answer; the Sex Pistols were the puppets of a propagandist, The Clash were a rock and roll band].

Mr. Marsden – ah, heck, why change the habit of a lifetime, Piggy - was, as I recall through 40 years of mist, a terrifically nice person. Unlike many of his colleagues who seemed to revel in the opportunities to be unpleasant to the inmates, Piggy was a gentle soul who appeared to be on the side of us kids, not the other teachers. Though he tried hard to drum the beau language into my tete laide (in fact, I even had extra remedial lessons with him) in the end he had to admit defeat as I failed to trouble the scorers when “O” level time came around. [My failure entirely sir, not yours].

Fast forward to today and I wonder what Piggy (and all his colleagues) in the language teaching business think about the imminent collapse of their profession?

Let’s face it; we are on the brink of one of the major themes of science fiction becoming fact.

Soon – very soon – I will be able to walk into the Café Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and say “Good evening, I’d like a table for two please. By the window. And please send over a bottle of your best champagne and six oysters as quickly as possible, thank you so much my good man” in English, at the normal pace at which I speak, and immediately be understood by the defiantly non-English speaking maître d’ as my words are rendered in perfect French.

Oh Piggy, the very thought must make you weep.

For cretins like me this technological breakthrough is nothing short of magnifique! With the ability to understand and be understood anywhere in the world all sorts of trips that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before will now make it onto my bucket list; not just the 6th arrondissement but the Russian steppes, the heart of African darkness, the back streets of the Kasbah - nowhere will be beyond the comprendo of an Englishman abroad.

Learning a foreign language has been a hallmark of a good education (and the font of many people’s paycheck) for a couple of hundred years but now you’ve got to wonder, why bother? To learn grammar? OK, but why not spend more time learning the grammar of your own primary language? (My failure to learn French was, in large part, nothing to do with Piggy; I hadn’t been taught English grammar before starting to learn French grammar so I didn’t really even know what a past participle was – though I went to a grammar school). To learn about the culture of a foreign country? OK, but why not just go there now given that it’s so easy to speak their language through the software on the phone? To see your own country through the eyes of people from other countries? OK, but again, if we can go and chat to people in Paris or Tunis or Buenos Aires, face to face, or over Face Time, today, as 14 year olds, why don’t we just get on with it, rather than spending five years on theory in a classroom before we venture out into the real world?

Though education is a precious and delicate thing, which should be adjusted slowly and gently and should be wary of fads and fashions, the idea that the curricula for the middle of the 21st century should remain untouched and immune to technological driven progress seems a difficult case to make.

Why don’t French women get fat? Because software’s eating everything.

Did Jim Kirk learn Klingon at the Starfleet Academy? No, he perfected the Kobayashi Maru and how to suck in his stomach so it fit his too tight tunic. He knew that the Universal Translator would take care of the bothersome aspects of talking to the Klingon Chancellor. How many Klingon teachers were at the Academy? None.

Learning a language now just seems like a terrific waste of time. Better to learn the language of the future – code.

Except ...

(You knew there was an except coming didn’t you – if there hadn’t been an except this would have just been a rant, a 40 year dish of revenge served from a very cold freezer).

... translation might be the most valuable skill anyone has to learn in a future where code rules.

But not your father’s translation (or Piggy’s). A new type of translation – translating points of view.

Think about it this way; Cortana or Siri or Alexa or Amy or Baxter will do the translating – the nitty gritty technical work of making my “alright mate” Piggy’s “bonjour”- but translating Piggy’s shrug of the shoulders - as he speaks - into my wink of my eye - as I listen - and knowing what these gestures mean and imply will remain a human grade task long into the Singularity.

Software will increasingly let us understand but make understanding more difficult.

Software based translation will mix up people of different languages at a scale that the world has never seen before. Latvians will talk to Maoris. Filipinos will talk to Peruvians. Zambians will talk to Kuwaitis. Not in English as they may do today but in their own language. And not just small numbers of the more adventurous who wander far afield, but huge numbers of regular ordinary folk who would never have learned a second or a third or a 17th language but now can chat away about the World Cup final or global warming or Donald Trump.

Software based translation will bring together people in ways that have never been possible before in a global experiment in which we will all be guinea pigs.

It is not hard to see incredible, wonderful things arising from this extraordinary new capability. Nation shall speak peace unto nation. There will be no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met (and spoken to in their own language) yet.

A post nation-state world will likely move closer to reality.

But in the global melting pot of a universal babel fish mediated world genuine understanding will probably be more tricky than ever, for below language lies meaning, and meaning is the repository of DNA, history, culture, ambition, anxiety, and time, that flow deep into the soil on which you stand.

This truth is observable in the more mundane surrounds of our everyday workplace. The marketer sits with the procurement clerk – do you understand where I’m coming from? Do you know what I mean? The business analyst sits with the end user – you really don’t get this, do you. The CEO sits with the CIO – one of them is from Mars, the other, Venus.

The world – our working world – is full of misunderstanding; even when we’re speaking the same tongue.

The language of finance is different from the language of medicine which is different from the language of soccer which is different from the langue of sales which is different from the language of love.

Misunderstanding is rife. Misunderstanding is the norm. Misunderstanding is natural. Human.

Software won’t change that – in fact it might make it worse.

Back to Eno; the skill of understanding French (and teachers’ monetization of such) is set to go away – the judgment to understand someone else (in a café, in a meeting) is set to be the ability that will need teaching and learning and mastering in an era where all seven billion (soon, ten billion) of us can talk together.

In the frenzied debate about the software based displacement of human skill the more purple prose can only ever focus on the black and white of loss and gain; hardly ever on the gray of mutation.

Piggy – if he’s still teaching (if this piece ever finds its way to you Mr. Marsden, I hope you are well, and I hope you aware of my gratitude and respect) – probably doesn’t have a long career ahead (Ed. he’s probably already retired!) teaching le, la, nous, etc. to spotty nosed little bleeders. But I’d hazard a guess that there is a long, long career ahead for those that can teach the next generation that there’s nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding. http://bit.ly/1DCCEAo

That will probably be beyond the grasp of software for some time come. That’s a job for the ages.

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I'm In With the Linked-In Crowd

The $26bn acquisition of Linked-In by Microsoft last week is a bit of a digital Rorschach test. To some folks I’ve talked to it’s a visionary master stroke that opens up all sorts of new possibilities in “social selling” and cements the role of email in an increasingly Slacky world. To others, for whom Linked-In is still something of a mystery, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. And then to some it’s a colossal waste of money. $26bn! For what? A web-site where people put their resume and scratch your back in the hope that you’ll scratch theirs! Man, the sell-side bankers did an outstanding job!!! $26bn for a company on the brink of implosion! http://nyti.ms/25Uawxk. Take a bow, Frank Quattrone.

Personally, I see in the ink-splatter all sorts of upside for Microsoft. Consider this;

Linked-In is the de-facto corporate directory for business nowadays; talking to someone on the phone you don’t know? You’re probably looking at their Linked-In profile as you chat. Even if it’s someone in your own company. Listening to someone talk at a conference? You’re probably checking them out on Linked-In (and Twitter) as they blabber on. Before you head back to SI.com.

  • Linked-In is becoming the de-facto thought leadership platform; why have your own website or blog nowadays? Go where the fish are and put your stuff up on Linked-In. Hey, look! You’re reading this on Linked-In!!!
  • Linked-in is the de-facto way of connecting with people you don’t know but would like to know; sure, you probably still meet folks at the golf club or the Rotary or the gym or the resort bar or the Opera but if you want to get connected with someone nowadays a direct call seems hopelessly crude and old-fashioned. And nobody answers their phone anyway if you call them.
  • Not having a presence on Linked-In marks you out as an eccentric or a dinosaur. Even if you’re not in the market for a new gig, don’t want to buy anything, or don’t want to sell something. And if you’re not in any one of those three categories then what are you doing at work all day?

In short, Linked-In is close to becoming a utility in the 21st century digital economy. When you’ve got $100bn parked in banks around the world collecting 0.5% interest spending some of it (even a quarter of it) to buy your way into the next form of business infrastructure seems Bellicheckian (i.e. a good play). (BTW: if you still don’t care for the deal, tell me, what would you do with all that money???!!!)

And in reality the $26bn isn’t buying today’s Linked-In; it’s buying what Linked-In will become. Three years ago, I wrote this piece outlining how HR processes would look in a world of Code Halos. http://bit.ly/1Myr2VR. Far be it from me to tell you “I told you so”, but I told you so.

Fast forward to mid-2016 and this is how HR, and selling, and working with other people is beginning to change and shift into an always-on, mobile, social, intelligent network based experience. Fast forward to 2020 and this type of experience will be ubiquitous and unremarkable.

Of course for Microsoft the ability to migrate the best elements of Office (no sniggering at the back of the room please) into this, not particularly brave, new world gives the Office franchise a post desktop future and sends a shot across lots of bows; the aforementioned Slack, the new BFFs at Salesforce.com, and the folks down south with a Mountain View. Microsoft will integrate the tools we use to work with the utility we use to connect and collaborate, throw AI based analytics, recommendation engines and best next action platforms into the mix, stir in a little advertising, light the blue touch paper, stand back, and hope the resulting explosion produces commercial propulsion, not reputational disaster.

$26bn to have a shot at being relevant to people who’ve never ever heard of Clippy? http://theatln.tc/1GHTL90. Like.

Like also because it prompted me to go and play this again http://bit.ly/1Fye23P. Really Like.

In a world of weak ties, not club ties, Linked-In is increasingly how the world works. Expect your Microsoft rep to start talking about social graphs and digital assistants and just in time social learning before the quarter’s out.

$26bn? Ok, hardly chump change. But not a chump move.