Whimsical ideas for 2020 - Part 1

12/28/19

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Making predictions is asking for trouble. You are guaranteed to risk looking foolish, grandiose and even if you get things right, just a smart-ass. But I couldn’t help myself so here are some weird ideas I have been thinking about for 2020 and beyond.

These are a combination of: wishful and whimsical thinking, startups I would like to see funded or fund myself, quasi sci-fi ideas, boring real predictions and atleast one meant merely to provoke. Figuring out which is which is left as an exercise to the reader. In an idea I shamelessly stole from Daniel Gross, I’m going to split these into multiple parts over the next week.

  1. “Mr.Wolf for online security”

    I predict we will soon see the rise of internet security fixers you can call in terms of crisis.

    Your phone stops connecting to the network after a weird text message. You get on wifi and notice unusual login notifications and error messages when you open any of your usual apps. Congratulations! You’ve been hacked and/or SIM ported. You quickly try and block off access and lock out the intruder but you find that you yourself are locked out and find yourself on endless phone support calls pleading with some agent to believe you are, actually, you.

    This nightmare could easily happen to any of us. With the rise of SIM porting and carrier inaction, we are also powerless to stop it. Ironically, the time we need our online identity the most - being able to prove who we are to large techncompanies - is the time we find ourselves distrusted by all of them.

    But what if there was a way around this? At the risk of mixing movie franchises, what if there was someone you could call? (I had gone with the Ghostbusters theme in an early edit, bear with me). A theoretical “Mr. Wolf Inc” who come to the rescue of people who have been hacked in the first few hours/day when the situation is frantic.

    Here’s how it could work. You pay Mr. Wolf Inc a steep fee and they swing into action the moment you call them. They send someone - a geeky Harvey Keitel - to your house or wherever distant part of the world you are currently in. They verify your identity with an old fashioned human being as opposed to any automated method.

    Once verified, they quickly get to work on “Mr.Wolf”-ing the situation by using prebuilt backchannels (massive handwave on how this could work!) with the large tech companies with them vouching you are actually you. Their “rescue” will involve but not be limited to: locking down all of your accounts, handle communication with Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, your phone providers and get your internet life back in working order with a clean forensic analysis.

    If you believe the above is possible, you can imagine extending it further. Mr. Wolf Insurance sells you insurance to protect you from damages when your online presence being damaged, the same way Geico insures your car or home. Instead of sending a human being to your home, Mr Wolf uses video calls+deep learning to authenticate you and make this really scaleable.

    I suspect a lot of us would pay some real $ for this service.

  2. “Story as Platform”

    I predict we’ll soon see a new IP/story universe designed from the ground up to allow a single story to be told across movies, theme park rides, games and enable various creators to help create it but all enabled by the story’s scaffolding.

    Much has been written about a) Disney’s usage of IP to dominate the box office with the MCU, Star Wars, Frozen, etc and b) Fornite and many of its brethren being the way people spend time online (if you haven’t, I highly recommend reading Matthew Ball on this topic).

    In each of these cases, Disney took an existing IP (Marvel, Star Wars) and then “built” on top of it - multiple movies, TV shows, new theme park attractions, AAA and mobile games, rides and ridiculous amounts of merchandise.

    But this approach isn’t without its challenges. As the mixed reception for Star Wars shows, franchises can only go so far. In the case of Star Wars, it is unclear whether you can tell continuing stories and move the main characters forward and deal with decades of continuity. Kevin Feige and Marvel have done a much better job of building an universe they can extend and refresh - it’s very notable how few of the original Avengers cast are central going forward while Star Wars keeps going back to the 70s. However, even the MCU has no gaming presence to speak of. I believe in each of these cases as with other famous IP (Harry Potter, LOTR, etc), you face challenges when taking IP and a fan base in one medium and try and adapt it to another.

    But what if you could design a new story+characters+universe that was meant to work across all the above? Imagine something designed to be a book and a TV series and a movie and a theme park ride and a game and have it be possible within the storytelling and universe of the IP itself.

    The seed of this idea came from Eugene Wei who recently called Watchmen the perfect “platform” where Damon Lindelof could play in and build on. The word “platform” in this case refers to something with some scaffolding but also knobs and levers and open space where new creators (Lindelof in this case) could pain in.

    I believe we will see new “story platforms” that let creators adapt them to various media while still working within the confines of the story itself. 1. The best I’ve seen so far is how the Spiderman multiverse or the “Arrowverse” uses multiple dimensions to weave in multiple versions of their characters with real consequences across storylines. DC’s original “Crisis” storyline event achieved something similar. But I suspect we will see lots more here innovation here to make this work for the streaming+gaming platforms of 2020.

  3. Social conventions for remote work

    I predict that we will have rapid evolution in both tools and social conventions for how to make all of the above and more possible for remote work.

    At this point, it is almost given that remote work is going to be a key part of how we all get things done. Be it the insane cost of living in San Francisco, the advances in tools like Zoom, Slack, Notion, etc or the explosion in bandwidth in countries like India, we are all going to be spending a lot more time with co-workers who are not in the same physical building.

    However, there is an enormous amount of “stuff” that happens in a physical office critical to an organization that tools haven’t captured yet. Be it the feeling of being in the same room during an all-hands, the serendipitous encounter while grabbing coffee or just reading the mood of the room during a meeting - there is so much more to working in a place than just meetings and documents.

    How do you know when to break into a conversation in a virtual meeting without interrupting someone else? How do you re-construct the aimless but essential conversations that happen during a Friday casual demo hour with food? The esprit de corps of a well-constructed all hands that fires everyone up? And I’ve never seen anyone conduct a productive brainstorming session with purely remote attendees.

    The impact of the above may not be easily quantifiable but anyone who has worked in a large organization will immediately recognize how essential they are. For remote work to, well, work, we will need to find replacements or proxies for a lot of the above.

    Some of this may not have remote answers. You may need to fall back on getting everyone into the same location. Some may require new UX (a ex-colleague suggested a Google Hangout button that said “I want to speak” to indicate when you want to jump into a conversation without interrupting the speaker) or just new social conventions altogether around how we work.

    Regardless of the form they take, I for one suspect we’ll see a lot of both tech and cultural innovation here.

  4. Personal attention optimization.

    I predict we will soon see the rise of “personal attention optimizers” that will work on your behalf, know what is healthy for you, what your priorities are and try and optimize. 2

    I’ve spent the better part of this decade working on ranking algorithms in many forms. While it’s fashionable these days to talk about the so-called evils of ranking and recommendation algorithms, I’m a big fan of how much they help people in getting content they care about. These are some of the most complex systems ever built in tech.

    However, no algorithm inside a FAANG company knows everything else going on in your life and is actively incentivized to optimize for your well being or your personal priorities. For example, let’s look at messaging. You wake up and you see a few dozen notifications, badges and unread icons.. Should you open that iMessage or that WhatsApp notification first? Maybe go check a dozen Slack channels? But what about your multiple email inboxes? And of course, Twitter DMs need top priority 😉.

    All of us now run more and more extensive triage processes across a multitude of notifications to figure out where to focus our limited time on. The above is just for messaging, extend this to entertainment (Netflix and Amazon compete to try and notify me of new shows to watch), commerce and you are spending a lot of time on your phone trying to figure out where to direct your attention.

    But what if we had algorithms that a) knew us and b) optimized for what we consider is in our best interests and matches our priorities.

    Open up your phone in the morning? Show you just the overnight WhatsApp from your mom in India (ok, this might be a scenario that only applies to me and other Indians), the Slack DM from your boss and your overdue bill notice on that insurance bill that mysteriously failed autopay. Spending too much time on internet fights late at night? Optimize away from charged conversations and towards perhaps more from your Oura ring asking you to get to bed early.

    This might sound “Black Mirror-y” but I’m confident that even a simple heuristic running across all of my iOS notifications will massively help my productivity. Only the platform providers may be able to build any of this but I would love to see the thought and complexity built into feed algorithms now working to help people manage their attention.

There are many others I’m excited about but more on that in the exciting sequel! If you’re working on any of the ideas above, drop me a note at @sriramk or sriram@sriramk.com.

Notes:

  1. Yes, calling a “story” a “platform” is only tech nerds would do but like any name of an abstract thing, it forces you to think of certain attributes and compare it with other entities you wouldn’t have thought of as being in the same realm. I like it.

  2. To get ahead of the inevitable tweet.

    No one:
    Absolutely no one:
    Silicon Valley: “Instead of just making reasonable decisions like any smart adult, we will now invent an algorithm to run our life for us”

My response to the above is simple: just take away all of your email’s ranking and spam processing and look at your raw list of incoming messages and you’ll quickly see the power of a good algorithm working on your behalf.