So Spotify is quietly moving into syndicating podcasts. Well, not so quietly, in fact; Bloomberg reports that it’s spent $400m on podcast related acquisitions this year. The reasoning appears to be that the lock of the big labels on back catalogues is immense, and that’s where almost all the revenues come from. Spotify is a sales channel for a few suppliers, not a market place. There are none of the network effects that would give them increasing strength the more people connect up.
Now in podcasting, there might be those network effects, hence their interest in it and in the potential there could be in a big pool of much more diverse content. It’s all very different over at Facebook, where more people join because more people have joined. Is that the grip and audience control that Spotify hopes to find in podcasting one day? Probably.
Cynicism and manipulation seem to be particularly pervasive among technology brands, or should I say big and aspiring companies driven by technology? You need look no further than smart speakers – that huge category of home devices that’s taking over a private space near you. “Smart speaker”? Rubbish, they’re smart microphones, but who would buy them if they were described as they really are? Put a microphone in your kitchen, sitting room, bedroom? I don’t think so. What a marvel of cyclical marketing collusion.
Some have been found out in their cynicism, like Facebook with their Cambridge Analytica scandal, and have suffered significant reputational damage as a result. Other revelations have produced less immediate backlash, as with the news that Amazon does have people listening in to all those smart microphones. Google is up to much the same kind of stuff. Have you ever tried a search in a private browser window and compared the results? Logging out of that Gmail account makes a difference too. I’ve been amazed to see how the results get filtered by Google if you let it identify you, so much so that I’ve moved permanently to Firefox.
The creeping tentacles of technology slither relentlessly towards us, to get a grip on our digital identity, and it gets harder and harder to escape the all-seeing analytics. Even though I now put more effort into anonymity, and I do all that I can short of obsession, I still get a shiver when I see in the middle of an article I’m reading, an ad for some product I looked into a couple of days ago, that’s been served up by Doubleclick. Anyone who’s used a slow network connection has probably seen the long list of connections being made by websites to advertisers and other organisations as the page loads. Some pages do it at precisely the same moment that a big banner popup proclaims how the website owners value visitors’ privacy. Yeah, right.
I just want to be left alone, and I’m not alone in feeling that way. There’s a visible, very vocal movement against large technology companies and their cynicism. Techlash has spawned Firefox and a growing band of organisations dedicated to community spirit in technology. The Open Source movement and CopyLeft are now well established ways of working, and have vast momentum. In a December 2018 article in the Financial Times call “A year in a word”, Techlash was defined thus: “Techlash (noun) The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents”. Politico said that Techlash would go from strength to strength in 2019.
A new trend I’ve seen recently, is the growing resistance to subscriptions, a realisation that subscriptions have been multiplying. I’ve heard more and more people expressing surprise, concern and resentment at the long list of subscriptions they’ve discovered they’ve signed up for, when most of them seem to be for more than they actually want. If you want to watch F1 it seems that you either have to subscribe for soccer as well, or pay through the nose for each race.
The reaction to all this growing cynicism and corporatism has been building in the background for longer than these more visible manifestations, it seems to me though. The rise of artisan food shops began ten to fifteen years ago, at least, and local traders have hardly been shy about themselves. I daresay many of us would rather buy a hand crafted loaf from a baker call Bob or Jim, who is still covered in flour from baking, while serving in the shop that he owns, than take a ready-wrapped, branded loaf from the shelf in a super-market. I’ve enjoyed following the fortunes of Martha at the Forge Bakehouse in Sheffield since she first came up with the idea and started posting all the twists and turns on Facebook. And I don’t live in Sheffield.
Openness, honesty, and people engaging with one another, are the antidote to all this creeping, cynical manipulation, bots, AI and machine learning. Let’s see a continuation of the trend towards open kitchens where we can talk to the guy plating up our seared scallops with chorizo and tahini. Thinking about it, open kitchens and big picture windows began to be more commonplace about ten or fifteen years ago as well, and now you can see all the goings on as they prepare your food. Sometimes, these open kitchens let you see what’s going wrong, too, as I discovered recently when I spotted a chef picking up handfuls of diced chicken from the floor and returning it to the pan.
They say that people buy from people, and sales training often stresses that you should never sell to strangers. So be it. Quite right too!! Long live the Techlash movement, down with cynicism and corporatism, and let’s have more open kitchens, bakers and others in business that we know personally.
Peter Osborn, Chairman, Flexiion
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