The Twilight Twenties

A not so very long read about the Twilight Zone, the upside down, Stranger Things, ruthless digital disruption, Gaudi and a keynote in the making. Or not. I am still not sure what to do with this pretty dark side of technology, so consider this a trial or maybe just a way to express concerns.   When there is time for a Q&A after a keynote, I very often get questions that are not really questions. They are statements. Sometimes those statements even feel like accusations. I talk about big data and artificial intelligence and robotization and how the smart economy is going to help companies to get closer to their customers and enable them to crack the magic formula for doing business in The New Normal: connect to many and engage individuals. In other words, use the data of the transactions with your customers to feed your central AI to do clever stuff for each individual customer and engage him of her to the max. Mass hyper-personalisation.

People do point out that I seem to only see the bright side of things and that I forget the dark side of this all. They wonder where it will all lead us and whether this world is doomed by all this ruthless digitization.

I am not blind for the Dark Side. Not at all. Since quite a while I am in and out of love with a new keynote on this topic I am building for quite a while now and a book that may be the final result of all that time and energy spend. I would call the keynote and the book The Twilight Twenties.

Sometimes I think I need to list it as one of the keynotes that can be booked, because I feel I have the duty to share the dangers of the dark side and warn people. Sometimes I feel I have the moral obligation to be optimistic and that I should not focus on the dark side at all. Sometimes I mix some darkness into my keynote and notice that combining the light and the shadow confuses people even more. Confusion paralyses. And where people freeze nothing happens.

The dark side will win if we all freeze. The bright side may still win. I am an optimist.

This was only the intro. Stay around and tune in.

The Twilight Twenties.

People and society have entered The Twilight Zone, and that is most definitely the zone of Monsters and Creeps. Technology has pushed our old world beyond a tipping point. The Mayans were right when they predicted the end of the world on the 21 December 2012. Tipping points of a whole society are rare and are hardly ever noticed when they happen. The forces to tip a whole world build up very slowly and the point of no return is not some sort of big bang. Only in retrospect people notice it happened.

The tipping point happened that specific date. Believe me.

Beyond the tipping point

From that moment onward, the old world which was already slowly falling apart, is to die in the end.  It is fighting for survival in vain. But it is not giving up, yet. The new one that was slowly creeping in, will not only take over in a most brutal way, but it will kill that old one without any mercy. That new world seems very frightening, cold, hostile and it seems way too strong for old rules and laws and thus completely out of control. Even for governments. The rules and laws that controlled the old world seem to be unable to manage the new one. The old normal authorities were kicked out of the driver seat.

In 2018, I shared the stage with Alexander Nix, during an afternoon on big data and AI during the ABN-Amro tennis tournament in Rotterdam.  Mr Nix was the former CEO of former company Cambridge Analytica and he explained in detail how he ‘disrupted the US 2016 elections’. 3000 Dutch entrepreneurs watched his keynote and lost their breaths in disbelief. I was fascinated by both his genius as well as the ost obvious Doctor Evil element.

The early internet pioneers believed that the world wide connected world would create a better society, by eliminating the controlling and manipulating central authorities. The ‘wiki’-technology would allow everybody to create content and to get access to all information and as such information would be ultra-controlled and verified and correct. Over 4 billion connected people should have taken the power by now and created a perfect mobocracy. Yet we seem more powerless than ever before, we witness how we allow companies to disrupt our democracies and we have no clue where that will lead us.

Senator, we run ads.

Cambridge Analytica combined an impressive knowledge of the human psyche with big data to create algorithms that used social media to influence people in a very targeted way: they knew exactly how to confirm people in their biggest fears and how to turn that fear into action: vote for Mr Trump. They were using Facebook to target those individuals in the most direct and intrusive way. What we did not know when we saw Alexander Nix on stage in Rotterdam, was that Cambridge Analytica had not only used Facebook as a tool to communicate, but also as the big data source. Moreover, Cambridge Analytica had simply stolen and abused personal Facebook data to get to know people’s biggest fears.

When the members of the American Congress interviewed Marc Zuckerberg to find out how this could happen, they were the perfect proof that the old world is not capable of stopping the new normal. Because they do not understand the new normal and because the new world is already way too big and powerful for the dying old one.

When Marc was asked the question ‘How Facebook sustains a business model, when users do not have to pay for its services’ his words and body language summarized the first two decades of this century. First you see him really wonder whether this stupid question, is really the question he has heard and needs to answer. Then he gives the answer. “Senator we run ads” and there is this big smile on his face, which is a mix of disbelief and relief: they just do not get us, do they.

Senator we run ads, are the 4 most famous words of our century so far. Not only do they indicate that the old rules are outdated and so are the governments that try to impose them, but especially because they reveal what really went wrong.

The internet was stolen under our very noses.

And we did nothing.

The hold-up of the century was run by a few companies that surprised all of us by the speed they conquered the world in no time. They were and still are outlaws, that didn’t ask for permission when they stole the internet and seem to have no need to even ask for forgiveness right now. They are winner takes all companies and they take no prisoners. They kill competition and turn users into hooked and addicted slaves. Those companies already influence how we live, what we eat, what we pay, what music, movies and series we watch or listen to, what ‘friends’ we listen and talk to, where we drive, who we vote for, what we should and should not believe in… Those companies feed on the data that we give them because we can no longer imagine a life without them and the owners get rich beyond imagination because billions like us work in their data-mines and in the end, we pay for our own data. The business model is amazing: huge amounts of raw material (data) free are being collected by billions or data miners totally free of charge or even with a profit e.g. Amazon, Uber,…that you turn into products you can sell to your data miners or to companies that sell to them. It is the ultimate printing money business model.

Facebook’s original mission statement is no longer ‘Bringing the world closer together’, though that is still their official tagline. Watch Mark Zuckerberg’s profile on Facebook and see that is what he claims. It is not what Facebook does. No more.

Facebook went public in (yes the Mayans were right) 2012 and since then Facebook is about making money by selling ads. Full stop. In order to do so, they cluster people based on what they have in common into segments so they can sell target audiences to advertisers based on the specifics of that advertising company.  That is why they create echo chambers and that is why we get those flaming civil wars on Facebook that sooner or later might really escalate from the online to the offline world. We have allowed that the very canvas of society, which is all about how people connect, communicate and exchange information, was hacked by a company that now clusters way over 2 billion people to sell them like cattle on a marketplace.

The internet is gone. We no longer ‘go on the internet’. We are constantly online, on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Amazon, Youtube, Netflix, Waze, Spotify or one of those few apps on your smartphone screen…  We have more and more connected devices that are sensors that detect where we are, how we act, behave and live and that even listen to us, quite all the time. Companies may know us better than we know ourselves. We are no longer on that good old original internet where we can share whatever information to whoever at any time. There is no free internet no more. It is gone. The internet was stolen under our very noses and the power that seemed to shift from central authorities to us, the masses of empowered people, was brutally stolen by the winner takes all platforms like Facebook. And Amazon. And many others.

The upside down.

I believe that Stranger Things, the popular Netflix series (Netflix being quite ironically one of the outlaws themselves) may be so appealing to the audience, because subconsciously it confirms our feelings about The Twilight Zone. The upside world stands for the good old normal. The world of the late 80’s and early 90’s, when things were analogue and when there was no world wide web. It fills us with nostalgia. We long for vinyl and cassettes and walkie talkies and roll films and shopping malls… Life was simple. Straight forward.

The upside-down on the other side (being down there), is a mirror of this upside world, but it is cold, dark, hostile, frightening and it only wants to take over the upside world without any mercy. Dark and evil forces are using a fast growing web (the www) that doesn’t catch too much attention because it grows in the underground until it is too late to stop it. The evil forces feeds on the people that live on the upside world. That force was created by evil people that wanted to abuse those powers to beat ‘the others’ and conquer the world. It is the 80’s, so the evil ones are crazy scientists and Russians. Of course. Blame the Russians. Even for disrupting the US elections. Hey people, Stranger Things is about the evil digital world.

Will the upside down win in the end?

That is the question. And the answer is: Maybe, maybe not.

In my intro, over 1600 words ago (so congrats if you are still here, or should I say: Thank you for still being around?), I said that the Dark side, which is the upside down in Stranger Things, will win anyway if we do nothing and that we may still have a chance to make the bright side win.

So the one billion dollar question is: How can we beat the upside down?

The answer is out there. Two things you need to do:

  1. Binge-watch Stranger Things once again (or for those of you that do not know what I am talking about: just do it for the very first time)
  2. Travel to Barcelona,  visit the Sagrada Familia and deep dive into the upside down world of Gaudi

How to beat the dark side:

7 solid lessons learned from Stranger Things.

  • 1. Listen to the misfits.

The fictional town of Hawkings, Arizona, where the upside down is trying to take over the old world, is being saved a couple of times by a bunch of kids that are all misfits, dreamers and complete losers. It is quite amazing that one of my favourite quotes of all times was written by a copywriter for Apple and not by a world famous Noble price winning author, but than again, I have always been a misfit.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”  Rob Siltanen

  • 2. Curiosity did not kill the cat.

If those misfits would not have been so curious about what they saw that others did not seem to notice, the town would have been swallowed by the big evil without even fighting back. Curiosity saved the town and it saved the cat as well. Be passionately curious. All the time.

  • 3. Any way could be the right way, but keep walking.

Let us throw in another quote, a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

The bunch of misfits that save Hawkings time and time again, have no plan in most of the cases and if they have a plan, reality turns it into something completely different than planned in no time, because things do not seem to happen according to whatever plan. The next big thing is always around the corner. But the curious misfits keep going in their pursuit to finally find a solution to whatever problem they are facing. We can’t plan exactly how to turn the dark side into something that is good, but we need to do it anyway.

  • 4. Do not listen to your mom (especially not when she looks like Winona Ryder)

Moms, like authorities andsenators, think they know but they do not know what they do not know. Assumptions make people blind and blind people will not be able to save Hawkings or the world. You need to get rid of all assumptions and rigid patterns.

  • 5. The best way to beat the Upside down is to deep dive into it.

One can only fight when he or she understands, feels and even lives the enemy. Our local heroes make their way in the upside down because the truth is down there. If you think and act like the other party, you know exactly where and when and how to strike and where, when and how the enemy will try to strike you down.

  • 6. Good is not good enough. Even a perfect 10/10 will not be sufficient. You need an eleven.

Superpowers are only acquired by those that are an eleven and not an eight, a nine or even a ten. Be an Eleven. Or find one.

  • 7. Even Eleven needs a team

I know, it is an open door, but individuals will not win this war even if they have superpowers, it will be the curious misfits, Eleven and even the mom that looks like Winona Ryder that will have to work together as a team to win the battle.

How to beat the dark side:

1 amazing lesson learned from Antoni Gaudi

  • The upside down is not necessary the upside down.

The upside down doesn’t need to be the enemy. Maybe the upside down can be used as a force to build something new, bigger, stronger and more impressive than ever seen. When Antoni Gaudi was creating his first sketches of what would be the world famous cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, he used a simple, but strangely enough revolutionary technique to combine designing and engineering his building at the same time. Strangely enough, because the method used seems to be so obvious that only curious mistfits (he most definitely was one) that are a genius (an Eleven) can see what others could not. Instead of building a cathedral against gravity, starting from the floor upwards, Gaudi did ‘the upside down trick’: put the floorplan… to the ceiling and use weights and strings to ‘hang’ its design using gravity and not fighting it. By doing this he could not only design an organic cathedral that had a most natural look and feel, but he was also able the calculate the weight columns had to carry by adding the total amount of weights for that column.

All new technologies can be turned into good or bad.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”