After hearing his surrounding podcasts, I propose reframing it as: “The Humanisation of Tech”
Why Listen to Ben
Ben studied history at Cambridge’s oldest college Peterhouse - definitely making him what my brother would call a “pasto”.
Oxbridge isn’t unheard of in Silicon Valley, but they are usually STEM-background (most of my Balliol Pathfinder hosts, Rahul @ Superhuman).
After that was pretty standard Oxbridge corporate fare, as an analyst, on the later-vital topic of mobile, leading to placements at increasingly cool companies: Orange, C4, NBC.
Then Silicon Valley’s deepest thinkers decided they wanted a token nerd in the room, and from 2014-2020 a16z brought him on as a (non-investor) partner, basically to think deeply (about the shallow topic) of global smartphone rollout, a topic which I’ve also deeply studied during the latter end of that period (from a very different perspective).
Remarkably, Ben didn’t seem to ‘go native’ with the California lifestyle and vibe.
He’s kept the ‘Oxbridge chic’ (glasses & button collar).
Digitally he sends his 200k newsletter subs through his vanilla Squarespace site, lacking modern design musts like og:image (social sharing) or custom favicon:
Witty British guy in the room
He’s got a dry sense of humour but it’s great.
He says “Legacy Content Manufacturers… sorry TV Producers” youtu.be/6E-r55HS0…, which would no doubt irk Martin Scorcese greatly!
On being asked “What do I want viewers of my keynote them to leave with? They should go and have a cigarette”.
Anyway let’s see what these feted deep ideas are actually like yeah:
Past Few Years: Smartphones Take Over The World
I originally came across Ben’s annual keynote thanks to Shortcut (Mobile Inc.) CEO John Meurer. Given he was seeking funding at the time, there’s no surprise he’d be interested in someone at a16z preaching how the future of commerce is mobile ordering, not the high-street.
I found it to be a little nugget of perspective amidst the otherwise weekly mania of Silicon Valley.
When he said that smartphones will become ubiquitous, I sat up and listened, more than say I did when an Apple employee, or some shallow classmate said so.
Anyway, his predictions have not only turned out to come true, but thanks to Covid, far sooner than expected. E.g the fall of high-street retail like Topshop. Covid has accelerated history.
He said how he was originally planning to give a similar presentation again this year, but had to come up with new ideas.
Contrary to my initial expectations, the presentation is largely a solo effort. He works off a designed slideshow template, but otherwise does everything himself.
Thanks to @adamprocter on Micro.blog for alerting me to this year’s virtual edition, where Ben briefly appears from 45 degrees with a soft-focus background before getting onto the famous slide deck.
Watch it on YouTube, or skip to 7:30 below:
In the post-match podcast he admits he struggled with the title on it. He went with “The Great Unbundling”, based on:
“There’s only two ways to make money in business: one is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” - Jim Barksdale, in answer to the question “How do you know that Microsoft isn’t just going to bundle a browser into their product?”
Basically, unbundling is like the fact that people used to buy an album and now they stream individual songs.
I think Ben says more profound things about humans & tech in this talk than that.
Here’s my own unbundling of his talk, bundled back up with thoughts from adjacent podcasts.
My thoughts are addded in italics.
I call it: The Humanisation of Tech
a) The Humanisation of Software
2 Stages of Innovation, following pattern of cars & airplanes:
1. First 50 years: technology invention. The domain of engineers.
2. Second 50 years: social effects. The domain of marketeers & regulators.
Or to put it even more bluntly:
Aesthetic over Tech
Clubhouse has taken off because of it’s cool Western front (on Chinese back-end). If it had looked like a Chinese app it wouldn’t have worked.
“You could do a whole separate talk just on trends in India & Indonesia” (‘the Inds’) (post-match podcast)
Chinese tech won’t ‘take over the world’. Instead, China will repeat Japan: best innovations from China get adopted (short vids, tipping etc.) in Western format.
Tech newsletters (New York Times, protocol.com) aren’t about ‘tech’ anymore (charts podcast)
That’s because most big tech news is now about how democratic governments can get a handle of the most wealthy instituions of all-time to make them work for their voters.
“Let’s see what happens as tech becomes a regulated industry”
What will this regulation look like? “You don’t break up Apple, you just tell them they can’t charge more than 5% commission”.
Seems smart because self-regulation is only leading them to drop to15% commission!
b) The Humanisation of Marketing
“‘Lamp’ is no longer a Google/Amazon search. It’s an Instagram thing. What have you followed for last 3 years?”
Marketing is becoming more about playing long games of building trust & human connection.
“15% of money flow in digital advertising is unknown!”
Probably a bubble in Big Ad-Tech. Trustworthy micro-influencers are the future.
Tools like Shopify allow non-technical individuals like Kylie Jenner to monetize their following.
Tesla: “a media production business which tries to monetise through cars”. Looks like it will be successful because Elon’s bet on battery prices has paid off. But mainly it’s just a front for @ElonMusk.
Start-up creation is higher than ever, and the dominance of the terracaps has not killed it.
I do wonder though whether this irrational wantrepreneur behaviour / acqui-hire chasing. Regardless, personal brand business are on the rise, which is way more humane.
My Reflection: The 50-Year Path Toward Humanisation
Tech is currently so far from serving humans the phrase almost seems laughable.
But Ben’s historian’s perspective of a 50-year timeframe reminds the activists amongst us to be patient and play the long-game.
The arc of history is tending towards making tech work for humans better at scale.
(updated Mar 1st for formatting)
Appendix: ‘Another Podcast’ episodes
In their weekly podcast ”Another Podcast”, fellow Anglo-American brain Toni Cowan-Brown picks his brain about the behind-the-scenes of his talk, in the episodes before and after it.
“Clubhouse and the endless cycle of social apps”, Feb 14 (Apple)
My Raw Notes
LinkedIn got Stories: Ben Evans: “Excel’s gonna get stories next” 😂
“If you publish your podcast and you got 5 viewers, you’re like ‘yeah fuck the open web mate’”
Simple Cast > Anchor
My Flip Phone Diaries was actually one of the first Anchor podcasts. It definitely suffered from the 5 viewers problem!
Unfair comparisons are the only ones that matter: “it’s not the same thing” is powerful. Also backed up by 28’ in Charts.
Creator economy: People are taking effort to make good rooms
Chinese backend (Agora), cool Western front
Toni: Clubhouse as background noise
Ben: privacy: keeping audio for 24-48h
Timezones are back!
“Telling stories with charts”, Jan 31 (Apple)
This one provides great insight into how Ben enhances his storytelling by 10X with just some really basic charts.
He ends the podcast by saying: “Tableau, R… maybe next year!”. In other words, Ben Evans despite being a D-grade data viz engineer, is A-grade data viz storyteller, and data-viz experts need to constrain themselves more.
My Raw Notes
Four types of chart:
One thing going up
One thing going down
Two things similar
Two things different
Abstract art like Pete Mondrian, very clear simple stuff
I think he should push himself to do a fifth type: the postmodern chart where there is no clear story, and consider what that means
41’ tableau and interesting visualisation. Maybe next year.
Toni: everyone today is throwing big numbers out, but what’s the context.
Makes me think of TikTok likes / vanity metrics inflation. Hate it when people just throw out big numbers with no context.
17:30 tech newsletters (New York Times, protocol.com): “this isn’t about tech anymore” Toni
David Xing: minimalist slides, emotive
Usually there is like a hierarchy of your colours in a pallet of like five or six.
Ben tried doing shades of grey, and one accent colour (red)
Missing from presentation: Digital transformation, socials covered in this podcast.
34’ Ben Evans admits that he spends up to 2 days typing tables manually into XL to create charts. It’s great that he does things himself, but really he should outsource that to a data scientist. PS he must’ve been like me pissed off at the tables in history textbooks they make you read in humanities degrees at Oxbridge
35’ he talks about decks with the creative mindset of a novelist
38’ he basically admits that charts are a data-elitist vocabulary for storytelling (the thing everyone really enjoys)
“What do I want them to leave with? They should go and have a cigarette”
Ben Evans is basically Adam Curtis with Excel