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App In, Driver Out: Why Digital Concierge Services aren’t Quite the Future

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:07.

Two things, side by side, in friction:

(1) App In, Driver Out

One of the most dominant business models of the last 5-10 years has been what I think of as app in, driver out: All kinds of services re-packaged to accept orders via an app, and deliver the service through a driver.

Uber may be the most prominent but certainly isn’t alone. We’ve seen the same for food delivery, for laundry pick-up and delivery, for really all kinds of things.

It’s essentially a concierge service, and hence a pure luxury offering. Offered, in this context, with a digital component and offered extremely cheaply.

(2) Innovation trickle-down from elites

The Varian Rule (2011) states that “A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today; middle-income people will have something equivalent in 10 years, and poor people will have it in an additional decade.” Which is, by the way, just a way to rephrase William Gibson’s famous line “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed”, in which he’s been exploring the ways that elites have access to innovation before the mainstream does. (Since William Gibson has been quoted saying this since the early 1990s and I like him better than Varian, I’ll stay loyal to his version.)

But there’s definitively something there, to a degree. Elites — financial or technological — have early access to things that aren’t yet available or affordable to the mainstream but might be soon. In fact, not just elites. As Alipasha rightfully points out, it’s not just elites where innovation manifests, but the edges of society more generally: subcultures, special needs, street fashion, you name it.

What shape that mainstreaming might take, if it’s the real thing or some watered-down version, is always hard to predict. Commercial air travel was certainly only affordable to elites first, then later to everybody — in this case, the essential product was the same even though the experience differed along a spectrum of convenience. Personal assistants are available to elites, yet their mainstream versions — digital assistants — are nowhere near the real deal: They’re totally different in nature and deliver a completely different value, if any.

What type of future do we want?

So where does that leave us? Turns out that this type of trickle down only works if there are products that can get cheaper because of production, or through automation. This is, surprisingly, exactly what you’d think intuitively. There’s no surprise here at all! So that’s great.

Unless those services are fully digitized or automated through things like autonomous delivery vehicles, these on-demand services simply cannot reproduce this level of concierge service.

We can digitally model the input side: app-based input can be made convenient and powerful enough. But we can’t lower the costs on the output side enough, without massively externalizing costs to the environment: Automating delivery through, say, drones, might theoretically work but at scale would unleash its own special kind of hell into the urban landscape. And unless we want to go the route of exploitation, humans need to get paid a living wage, so there are no savings to be had there, either.

Extra services cost extra money, which is why these app in, driver out services crumble all over.

So if personalized, cheap laundry delivery might sound too good to be true, that might be because it is. While I’d enjoy the service, I don’t think I’m willing to pay these externalized costs. This wouldn’t be a future I want.

Petition Against Internet Censorship in Germany (FTW!)

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In Germany, some odd stuff has been happening lately. It’s a fairly complex topic, and the whole discussion is happening in German, so I’ll keep it really short: Top-level politician Ursula von der Leyen (Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth) is trying to introduce large-scale censorship in Germany, thinly disguised as an anti child pornography (CP) measure. It’s symbolic (if not fake) politics at its best: No chance to solve the problems at hand, but guaranteed to do a lot of damage. A nasty mix.

So you can imagine how happy I was when a petition to the parliament to prevent this law was put up on the German Bundestag’s e-petition site and got more than 10.000 supporters – within hardly 12 hours. Now there’s about a month until we need to get 50.000 supporters, then the parliament would be forced to listen to the petitioners. Given the surge of support in the little time, I’m confident this will work out.

CP is a heinous crime, and should be fought effectively wherever possible. But what she plans is ridiculous, ineffective, and dangerous: A blacklist of domain names, secret and without any oversight whatsoever, to be filtered by ISPs on a “voluntary basis”. Whereas “voluntary” means choosing between agreeing or being outed as a supporter of crimes against children.

Needless to say, IP filtering is too easy to circumvent to prevent any crime, or even the access to this kind of content. It’s completely ineffective & inefficient. What’s worse, this seems to happen instead of cracking down on the criminals who run the CP rings. (Some recent studies have shown that most CP rings are based in Western countries like the U.S., Sweden and Germany with strong laws to fight CP, and that the police isn’t really maxing out these laws yet. In other words: A test by Childcare showed that it’s actually fairly easy to shut down CP providers without any kind of filtering. This needs to be the first step.)

The opposition to these plans have been acting under the common tag Zensursula, a pun on the word censorship (“Zensur”) and the ministers first name (“Ursula”). Experts of all fields agree that these plans are complete crap. Even the Minister of Justice criticizes von der Leyen’s plans as probably anti-constitutional.

Putting these domain filters into place – with no oversight by judges, parliament or any independent jury – is the most dangerous thing I’ve seen in the German political sphere in a long time. Ursula von der Leyen is now trying to put her project on a legal basis. (What’s even worse, she gives contradictory, if not misleading information about the extent of her plans.)

It’s important that the politicians learn about this issue. I sincerely believe that the support for this whole internet filtering idea act on the best intentions. But a lot of them simply & clearly don’t have the technical background to understand what’s going on. How we could end up in this weird situation I simply cannot grasp. (Hello, staff, how about a decent briefing for your boss?) But now it’s important to stop this craziness.

Also, it’s clear that once these censorship tools are put in place, it won’t stay about CP for long. Others, most notably the Intellectual Property interest groups, will try to get in on the game, too. Dieter Gorny, the spokesperson of the German music industry has already expressed their support of the plans as a good first step towards better protection of intellectual property, read: he looks forward to also filtering supposedly pirated music. This is blunt, insensitive, and of course he’s not in any position to demand internet censorship to protect his industry’s interest on the expense of basic democratic rights like free, unlimited and uncensored internet access.

If you speak German, Netzpolitik is the best source for info on the topic. If you’re eligible to vote in Germany, you can sign the petition against censorship.

So this turned out much longer than intended. But yes, it’s that important. And that insane.