My Love Affair with Technology (Part 2)

Oh, technology, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.**

With you, I always know where I am. No need to flutter a giant accordion of paper, clearly declaring myself a vulnerable tourist. With a discrete touch of a wee arrow, a blue glow appears, pinpointing my location on a map where ever I am, around the corner from the new pub in town or in the middle of a Louisiana swamp.

You are infinitely patient, awaiting my call, any time, day or night, whether three seconds after my last flurry of interaction or three days. When I return, muddy and hungover from a weekend of outdoor debauchery, you are there, perky and responsive, eager to fulfill my requests.

Grateful and graceful, you seem to thrive on whatever amount of attention I provide, should I spend all afternoon doing Facebook quizzes or take seconds to fire an emoticon at a friend. You don’t complain, it’s never too much or ever too little.

And such an entertainer. No longer do I fear waiting in line, sitting in the doctor’s reception area, or a bus ride. You are always there, sharing news, messages from friends, cat videos.

How did we manage before every piece of information anyone could ever want was no further away than a Google search box, when TV choices were limited, when we had to wait until the stores opened to shop? I can learn how to do just about anything from a YouTube video, send messages and post rants that the whole world can see. I am empowered by so much information. You have brought me the world, to serve and amuse me.

You’re full of surprises, constantly changing to try and fulfill my needs, with no hint that in later years you’ll turn into a couch potato or develop a monotonic fascination with sports teams, online games or a particular breed of dog.

What more could I ask in a relationship?

Well, if you really want to know, there are one, or two, little things you could do. I mean, if you aren’t busy. I’d be eternally grateful. Make sure your favourite ports are active and connect all your inputs and outputs the way I know you like. If it’s not too much trouble, could you:

  • create the ultimate identification algorithm, some combination of biometrics that doesn’t require remembering anything, that’s unhackable and carries all the information anyone would every need to do anything, like full medical history and banking information.
  • make medical diagnosis 100% accurate, and come complete with a full explanation of the implications. No more, ‘well there’s a slight shadow on your liver but we aren’t sure what it is or if it’s harmful’. Or my favourite, ‘let’s wait six months and redo the test’.

Thanks Hon, I know you’re up to it. Hurry home, I’ll slip into that shell you like and we can relax, cosy up behind our firewall, and share some cookies.

** This is the second part of my romance with technology. Part 1 was the darker side of relationships.

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My Romance with Technology (Part 1)

I want to break up with technology. I’ve had enough of its passive-aggressive neediness and constant mood swings. Seriously, I need some space, time away to reconsider our relationship.

machine outThere’s the clinginess. I don’t need to stay logged into all apps at all time. I won’t forget  you if we’re apart occasionally. And having to create an account for everything, to buy plane tickets, to read a story (and see the ads in the sidebar), to look at a recipe. If I was paranoid, I’d think I was being watched, tracked to see where I spent my time.

When we first started seeing each other, things were simpler. When I wanted information, I’d go to a webpage and find, say, a bus schedule. Now, there’s an interrogation. Where am I starting from, where am I going, when do I want to travel?

Some of you are so controlling, I can’t even look at the website site on my mobile device, you insist I download the app. Now, I’m sure it’s a lovely app that many people really like. But take the hint, after offering it to me for the twentieth time and I decline, it means that I’m not interested. Let me use the website like I do on my laptop. I don’t care if its a bit of a mess. If you care so much, maybe you should spend the time to optimize it for mobile, rather than trying to control my interfaces.

There are times when I wonder what you are up to, with so many businesses built on free products. My darlings, you’ve forgotten the definition of business – an enterprise to derive a profit from selling things. Free data storage, free travel arrangements, free email accounts. I’ve been through too much and can only think that you are hiding something from me.

There has to be some way you think you are going to make money by letting me post my videos of the cat chasing its tail to your website. The more mature among you have admitted to it, to the schemes of how to make money from we devoted users. Facebook shamelessly posts targeted ads, Twitter has sponsored content, Youtube – commercials in front of clips. But even those who appear to speak freely about what they are doing have a bone chilling ability to pinpoint selected things that are going on in my life that only an intimate would know. Are you watching, listening, as I surf? How long are you remembering my posts and how do you have an uncanny ability to put them together to know what no one could possibly have seen me do in the bathroom last night?

This brings me to the inevitable conclusion that we would be better off apart. It’s not you. Well, it sort of is you, but more accurately, it’s us. I’m sure you will make someone a fine companion. You deserve better – a doting, frisky user, glad to see your shining logos each time the screen unlocks. Obediently memorizing dozens of passwords, linking all their information together in happily-ever-after conjoined bliss, while you continue your wanton data exchanges behind the scenes.

Me, I’ll find a sunny spot out of range of any WiFi and listen to the birds and waves on the beach, and read a book. A paper one.

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How Smart is Artificial Intelligence?

Cyberspace isn’t much like space at all. It’s crammed full of bytes of information, churning and frothing with intelligence agents who gnash and dissect the data in search of new knowledge, or at least something else to sell us. This is big data and at least one embodiment of artificial intelligence.

Recently, I heard an elegant explanation¹ of machine learning, or the ability of machines to create programs and algorithms that deduce things that they haven’t been programmed to – how machines learn. Consider what would be involved if you had to write program to tell a computer how to distinguish between a cat and a dog. I’d put together a logic chart and add up the cat vs dog points:



Meow noise



‘ark-ark’ noise



retractable claws



floppy ears






lolling tongue



it’s ignoring you



it thinks you are the smartest, most desirable person in the world



thrax ignoringand I’m sure you can come up with many other criteria, some less than absolute, such as curly fur (much more common in dogs but not impossible in cats).

In machine learning, you’d give the computer a million videos labelled cat and a million videos labelled dog to watch and let it figure out its own algorithm to tell the difference. Who wouldn’t want the job of watching a million cat and dog videos? Most of us already have. I am curious about the computer’s algorithm: does it use tail wagging frequency, that silly whining noise dogs make, or hissing, as selection criteria?

What if after all that the AI comes to the wrong conclusion. It might decide the true difference between cats and dogs is that cats are the overlords of the planet and dogs are service animals. It’s easy enough for a mere human to decide if the computer has done a good job of differentiating between the two animals. But what happens when they start predicting things we have no prior knowledge of, like how long a pair of socks will last?

And this is a trivial application of artificial intelligence. There is so much data out there, silly names for bigger numbers have emerged. According to this BBC article, 2.5 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data were generated in one day in 2012 and the US National Security Agency has the capacity to store a yottabyte (one thousand trillion gigabytes) of data. That’s a lot of Facebook likes, tweets, diagnostics at the auto-mechanic, GPS locations, term marks and everything else. If we set AIs to learning from all this data, it seems like a tremendous wealth of knowledge will emerge. This might fall in a few categories:

1. Important and life saving intelligence such as diagnosing serious health events like heart failure and intercepting terrorist plans, so interventions can be made earlier.

2. Efficient systems, such as automated traffic flow to relieve congestion or business processes like finding items (books, events to attend, cheese) people might be interested in based on their preferences.

3. Predictions – varying from novelty (suggestion of what the name of you next pet should be) to kinda useful (prediction of what your partner might like for dinner tonight) to downright world changing (motivational media reports – this is one of my personal dreams).

The biggest question in my mind right now is how do we know if the machines are right?

Sure, we can test each conclusion the machine reaches after it’s made but that will take some time, especially if it’s a long range projection. And who owns the predictions? Is information about me that I don’t know, like what diseases I will develop in my old age, my personal information?

Yikes, I don’t want to go a bad place with such a potentially good thing. Like most new technologies, there is the possibility of misuse and misinformation with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Maybe we can use machine learning to figure out how to avoid the misappropriation of information for improper purposes. That would be cool. A truly self-regulating system.


¹ I believe it was from Steve Brown,Chief Futurist and Evangelist, Intel at the Plenary Session ‘Innovation: Steering Disruption’ of the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Toronto July 8, 2015

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The Book Summit 2014

The program of the Toronto Book Summit 2014 promised an event that would amuse, engage and challenge both the author and the business person. When I attended this past Thursday, I was delighted. The conference was great. All of the sessions were very current. The information reflected what is going on this very moment (or at least last week) in the publishing industry. And there’s a lot going on.

I am going to highlight four sessions and then provide what I think the implications are for the authors and the publishing industry at the end. All of the conference speakers gave thoughtful, thought-provoking and absorbing presentations. The interpretation presented below is my own.1:

1. Evolving Business Models for the Publishing Industry (extracted from suggestions by Mike Skatzkin):

  • The subscription model, like Scribd  or Oyster, where users pay a fixed fee for as much content as they can consume.
  • Combining book sales with provision of other items. Amazon does this, as do bookstores like Chapters/Indigo, with a coffee shop and gift-store like items in their bricks and mortal (or cement and plywood) stores.
  • Publishers become more like literary agents. Mentioned examples were EReads, Rosetta and Diversion, that might look to accelerate the publishing process and provide comprehensive service to their authors, publishing back titles etc.
  • Book pricing, both of the paper version and ebook, will remain under pressure, from each other and from indie publishers. It was acknowledged that price erosion does signal a decreased value for the content, which to me, is sad. The value of intellectual property still isn’t fully recognized.
  • Celebrity imprints. Much to my surprise, this is already happening. Folks like Johnny Depp lend their reputation to attract certain authors and titles to a publisher.
  • A less unified book industry, where various business models co-exist.
  • Continuation of the used book market

2. Big (or small) Data and Marketing Strategies (inspired by Peter McCarthy’s talk)

If you are squeamish about the use of information that is culled about you from your use of the internet (with or without your knowledge), this talk might have sent you running for a dark cave and isolation from the rest of humanity. On the other hand, if you embrace the new normal in privacy (little to none) and believe it will deliver better, personalized information, products and everything else, then this talk would have delighted you.

We were treated to various examples of the predictive power of social media, such as Twitter. Academic models have achieved some success using tweets about movies to predict box office sales.

One theme of the day (also see #4 below) was the difference between surveying and observing people. Or, what we say isn’t necessarily what we do. From a marketing perspective, this means that social media has the potential to deliver added information not available from other sources.

Plenty of consumer data is readily available from Google, Twitter and Facebook. Combined with postal code (or equivalent) data, with comprehensive demographics2, it’s incredible what can be learned. Different forms of social media provide different information. Facebook is a good source for personal information. A google search history provides a behaviour profile, while Twitter supplies current information and location information.

Peter McCarthy showed us how readily available this information is, and how it could be used in something that resembled a stream of consciousness guided wander through the internet. Like many brilliant technological advances, he made the incredible look easy and in the end showed how this analysis could develop new marketing strategies. An example is arranging for an author signing/reading in an area where the author is relatively unknown but the demographics of the population are similar to the demographics of the author’s loyal followers.

3. The Use of Social Media in the Publishing Business (based on a talk by Evan Jones)

This is a challenging topic, since social media is so pervasive in all of our lives. We all have preconceived notions about social media. The presenter, Evan Jones, should be commended for delivering some sage messages about how social media can be used for business, and where business intersects with personal life.

This is my distillation of the presentation:

Even though corporations are legal people, they cannot form social networks the same way people can. Corporations are pressured to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote their brands and corporate image. However, likely the best approach for this type of activity is to have them act as ‘Broadcasters’ or providers of content, rather than use social media to form peer networks.

On the other hand, individual authors can promote their own brand, which is likely to be closely related to their own interests and personality. By creating their own social network, they build a community of followers who are likely to be interested in their writing.

All use of social media is not marketing. Marketing can be a distraction on social media.

4. Matching Readers with Content (based on the talk by Sara Critchfield of Upworthy, an organization that provides reader content)

This topic resonated with me. Under the pressure of the digital age, the publishing business must evolve. I think those that survive (the fittesr) will be those that use technology to help readers find the content they most enjoy, or to cut through virtual forests of material to find the trees of wisdom that they seek.

Sara Critchfield suggested that asking readers what they want to read and then looking at what they are reading often leads doesn’t have the same answer. Knowing how readers find what they want is key to getting publications in the hands of readers. The message I took away from the very edifying presentation was that we don’t have the analytics yet to model all of human behaviour. We are missing the emotional component. Thus the recommendation was to include the intuitive emotional information is creating marketing strategies which make use of the aforementioned demographic and social media data (#2 above). Also, testing, by looking at the number of ‘like’s, or equivalent, on social media, provides good approaches to identifying media that people want to see.3

There were other sessions I attended and folks I chatted to, and I learned something from each one.

So, what do I think the implications are for writers and the evolving publishing industry?

Traditional business theory (or maybe it’s economic) suggests that the broadening of the industry, including the rise of many smaller publishers, the introduction of new business models (or new incarnations of older ones, like subscriptions), and the revision of product themes (like selling of books paired with other items), is typical of a growth industry. Compared this to the consolidation and reduction in number of corporations in a mature to declining industry. Does it go without saying that its better to be in a growth phase than a mature phase? I think so, at least for business, as it suggests good stakeholder support, a lower risk of disappearance, and an increase in competition which leads to stronger business and happier customers.

I think industry evolution is a good thing for writers. A more robust industry means more of us can find markets for our work. More variety in publishers means more flexibility in finding a ‘fit’ with a publisher. There are some who fear that price erosion will make it impossible for writers to earn a living. I can see how this is logical, and frightening, but the publishing industry needs writers, so an evolved system must support writers.

Most importantly, I think evolution this is good for readers, which ultimately is what both publishing and writing is all about. We all strive to make our readers happy and I think a healthy, diverse industry will do that.

1I’m going to provide my reflections of what the speakers presented. The full program is here, along with links to the speaker’s bios. If you see yourself misinterpreted, please comment or send me a message.

2Try it. This is for the postal code of the area I grew up in, right there on a government of Canada website for all to see.

3This makes me think of Wattpad, a platform for writers to get active feedback from readers on their work.

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Pages Festival Conference on the Impact of Technology on Publishing – Part 1 – New Technology

I attended a wonderful conference on Friday, part of the Pages Festival and Conference. Toronto’s Annex area provided a resonant setting for discussion of the the impact of technology on publishing. I’d say a major theme of the day was the blend of the old with the new. Many decades ago, I fell in love with architecture in the Annex, where the sharply peaked gingerbreaded eves of the Victorians mingle with the square, tight-windowed, plain modern buildings. There’s a vitality to the area, where the glass and steel of the University of Toronto tries to claim streets, from the monstrous gothic cathedrals that resist the flow of change.

The subject of the conference fascinates me both as a writer and a business person who specializes in emerging technology-based businesses. So, I’m blogging from both perspectives, presenting one overview and two sets of implications.

On the conference program, there were four sessions, each a panel, or two, with four or more engaging speakers. This is the full list. In these posts, I’m presenting my impressions, opinions and synthesis of what I heard on the background of what I came in the door with1. My comments primarily relate to works of fiction, but there was discussion of other types of publications.

There is no question that technology, primarily multimedia (video, text, hypertext, images and games) and social media are having a big impact on both readers and writers2. Here’s a far from comprehensive list of the new and emerging:

Self publishing. An individual person can produce and distribute their own stories, using simple tools like Adobe and their own website. Products and services are becoming available at a great rate to support this type of publishing, which then might better be called autonomous or facilitated publishing. Examples include: publishers like Lulu, distributors like Amazon and Kobo Writing Life, service providers like editors and cover artists, and software that creates documents compatible with the various e-readers. Indications are that books produced by these means rivals traditional publishing in both numbers produced (in the US) and average revenues to authors.

Impact of self-publishing on traditional publishing. The proliferation of professional services means that it is now difficult to tell (i.e. by judging a book by its cover) if a novel has been self published or published by a large publishing house, like Random House. Presumably, the large publishing houses, with their fleet of editors and slush pile readers, are gate-keepers of quality in fiction and also offer the powerhouse of marketing and physical distribution not available to most self published writers.

Social books – One avenue that has been opened by social media is exemplified by Wattpad, which like other forums, encourages commenting and perhaps editing of content by readers. Wattpad is social media application that puts writers and readers together – it’s all free (no cost to readers, no cost to writers to post but also no pay for writers) but is a potential way to develop a following of readers. It has international use, so is a good way to get into overseas markets, also good for interacting with readers, getting feedback. I haven’t used it yet but it sounds like participating in a huge critique group. As a writer, putting your work on Wattpad may be viewed as publication by other markets and therefore may limit the other venues you can publish it in.

Media rich experiences. Interactive games that require the players to seek information in diverse locations (geographic and media based) have been created, such as these Time Tremour. The creation of stories that use visual images, including three dimensional ones, is made possible with tools such as those provided by Future Stories.  Accessibility and distribution is currently evolving for products like this.

Multiplayer on-line games, like World of Warcraft, can be considered creation of story, although the experience is different than reading or listening to a novel written by someone else.

And finally, let’s not forget whatever miracles wearable technology can provide us to enhance our experience of the story, maybe some day in a way reminiscent of the Matrix. An example of wearable technology is here.

What does all this new technology mean for fiction writers, and the business of distributing fictional works? Click here for my interpretations of the impact for writers and here for my predictions of the impact for the business of publishing.

The conference celebrated the wisdom of Marshall McLuhan, who realized decades ago the many of the benefits and challenges that electronic technology could bring to publishing. I like the idea that we are responsible for directing the future. The irony is that technology is far from serving us well. This was brought home during the conference by typical technical glitches, hiccups, of the sort we all experience every day, in the flow of presentations caused by platform incompatibilities and connectivity issues.

Technology has vast promise but it’s people who have the power to ride and steer the monsters new media creates, reigning in the promise and directing the power to serve society. I’m on board, riding to see where technology can take us.

1 For the sake of the flow of this post, I haven’t identified individual speakers. Please feel free to comment below if you would like attribution.

2 There was discussion that these labels are no longer appropriates, and that better ways of describing readers might be users, consumers, experiencers or other things and that writers (and editors) might be creators, curators or team leaders.

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Pages Festival Conference on the Impact of Technology on Publishing – Part 2 – Implications for Writers

How could a writer react to the changes technology brings to publishing? Fear seems to be a common reaction. Embracing the new with abandon is another approach. A modest amount of both is probably warranted and what I am aiming for.

There were times during the conference when I wondered if I was a dinosaur, wanting to do something as old fashion as sit in my kitchen alone with my laptop and write an entire novel by myself. Especially when this was folllowed by literally years of editing and polishing before sharing my prose with the world. And then there’s all the time and money I spend on writing courses and workshops – are they really necessary? I could self publish without much of this hassle. For the sake of the reading world, I’m relieved I didn’t do this ten years ago with the first novel and stories I wrote. They weren’t very good. Please note this is just me. I’m not saying that other writers who may have more natural talent or are quicker learners would produce the same ghastly quality prose that I did in my first stories. I know writers who have self published that are very dedicated to their craft and produce a high quality product.

But I am glad I haven’t didn’t self publish early in my career as a fiction writer, when I wasn’t able to judge the quality of my writing. In the past year, I have self published a few short stories on my website, just because I wanted to share.

In defence of the dinosaurish tendencies in us all, people have been reading stories for centuries, and I expect they will continue to for a long time. While creating a story online in a game environment is a fantastic experience, I don’t think it fulfills the same need as snuggling up with a book to enjoy a tale concocted by someone else, someone with a different perspective than you, the reader. I think there will be people to consume our stories for the foreseeable future.

Is it necessary to change the format of all fiction? We already have stories available for consumption in a number of forms – written, audio and visual (movies and TV). And none of these has destroyed the demand for the other. So, will new forms of literary entertainment emerge that incorporate other forms of media? – almost certainly. And it will be fun to create them and see how they can enhance story telling. However, people value being told a story and being able to disappear into it, passively, privately, and discretely. The written word has its conveniences, such as being accessible on the subway, in the bathtub, and a family of five can read five different stories simultaneously without any fights over the remote control or disturbing each other.

Should writers self publish? This is a giant topic, which I can’t do justice to in this post. A question raised at the conference was whether all writers will be forced to self publish because of the disappearance of the big publishing houses. There is no question that the corporate publishers are under pressure, especially price pressure, from self publishers. But there is a need for quality control and this is one of the services provided by traditional publishers. I have heard it said that the big houses will evolve to be distributors for the mass market, ‘hit’ books or authors. But then, that’s what they always did, before self publishing became prevalent. Meanwhile, self publishing provides a great venue for writers who want to pursue independent promotion of their stories. Some of them achieve significant sales. However, most of those are then picked up by major houses, for further distribution.

Self publishing will let a writer achieve many specific goals, but it is not the only pathway to publication. A viable option is the traditional route of querying agents and publishers, but it is a long and potentially frustrating path.

It strikes me that the foregoing sounds all stuffy and conservative, which is where the fear lives. I did say I was also going to leap into the new and see what the new technology could do for me. I use social media to connect with readers and other writers. I self publish. I’ve also published in professional, semi-professional and other markets. I try to remember to put media in my blog posts, but tend to forget, being fond of words. I’m going to try Wattpad to see what it’s like. This is my way of dealing with technological change – trying it to see if I like it, or more specifically, what the benefits and uses are. Really, I’d do whatever makes the most sense to get my stories to as many people as possible.

I’ll do whatever the technology allows me to do, as long as it’s legal.

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