The Voice Age Is Here, and Amazon is Its Master


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Voice computing has been revving at the starting gate for some time. It’s finally having its breakout moment with the market success of Amazon’s Echo device and Alexa voice assistant. The emergence of voice has implications well beyond the opportunity to bark out Amazon orders and song requests to a compliant digital helper (The Economist): “Computers without screens and keyboards have the potential to be more useful, powerful and ubiquitous than people can imagine today.” At its best, it feels like casting spells.

But the magic of voice commands comes with a cost. Echo is a corporate owned microphone listening in on your living room. The whole system works better the more fully you let it in on all the details of your life. How prepared are you for that?

Amazon, of course, is a retailer; the more of your info it has, the better it can serve your needs — and drain your wallet, if you’re not careful. As Ben Thompson points out (Stratechery), the company’s success with Echo has left it in a commanding position to own the operating system of the connected home. Making Alexa so easily extensible and connectable has put Amazon well on its way to dominating the Internet of Things (at least in the home) as effectively as Microsoft dominated PC desktops, Google dominated search, and Facebook dominated social networking. Pretty good for a bookstore! Now the company, which has always fanatically held to a “customers first” philosophy, has to make sure it can hold onto our trust.

Uber Is Opening Up Its Traffic Data

Uber is unveiling a website called Movement that provides access to its traffic-flow data to urban planners and other researchers looking for ways to improve local traffic patterns (TechCrunch). The company promises that the anonymized data won’t violate users’ privacy.

That’s all cool. Could the famously hyper-competitive Uber suddenly be feeling a burst of open-source altruism? Maybe. Also: when traffic moves more smoothly, Uber can make more money. But Uber isn’t going to move into the road improvement business itself. So it makes sense that the company would want to share some of the information its systems gather with the leaders and policymakers who are in that business. Meanwhile, data devotees will have fun comparing Uber’s urban portraits with those available from other services.

Telling It Like It Is, Over and Over

The concept of “radical candor” — a workplace ethos that makes blunt critical feedback an obligation — emerged in Silicon Valley and the financial industry, where Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates has made it one of its core principles. Now radical candor is taking hold in, of all places, Britain (Buzzfeed) — a nation that has been piling up a surplus of emotional reserve for centuries. In London startups, the radical candor playbook, which involves lots of meetings conducted at therapy-session intensity, is increasingly popular.

What about diplomacy, discretion, and sensitivity? Didn’t we learn from Ibsen and O’Neill that people need their illusions? A Cambridge sociologist interviewed in Buzzfeed recoils with horror: “I think it would be living hell for people.” But promoters of radical candor insist that it’s not a license to abuse co-workers. “You have to care personally and challenge directly,” explains Kim Scott, who’s written a book on the practice. Everyone agrees on one thing: All that directness is exhausting.

China Chat Goes Wild For Red Packets

Here’s the latest installment of “They Do Digital Things Differently In China”: On WeChat, China’s dominant messaging platform, “Red Packets” are all the rage (Fast Company). They’re a kind of gateway drug for WeChat’s payment service — a “seductive blend of social networking, gaming, and gambling” in which friends send small payments to one another and everyone races to open the messages first in hopes of getting a larger share.

They’re also a viral intro to WeChat’s mobile payments system. When you participate, you get your own WeChat wallet, which you can use to buy stuff. In a country where credit card use is less widespread, that’s a huge deal. WeChat competitor Alibaba has had a similar system in place longer (and still has a bigger share of mobile payments overall), but WeChat’s game-like features pushed it into overdrive.

Don’t hold your breath for something similar to take off in other markets, though. The exchange of red-envelope gifts is a longstanding tradition in China. Elsewhere, the practice still leaves a lot of people mystified.

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