February 2009

The title of this post basically says it all and I could leave it without any content. But this being a blog etc. I feel I should explain further. So here you have it:

It dawned on me today that most of the time we are not thinking, we are merely processing incoming information, in most cases redirecting it somewhere else. For example I get an e-mail and I decide what to do with it, then I send it to someone from our team with a short comment. Or I read a bit of news and I decide to share it on Twitter – copy, paste and it’s done. Or I might decide to share it with friends via e-mail. Or maybe even write something about it.

All this activity – even though it happens in the mind – is not thinking, but processing – reacting to outside stimuli coming in. Thinking is a much deeper thing, which takes time and concentration. Those, in turn, usually require relatively large chunks of time without interruptions from new stimuli firing up the whole processing scheme. Those chunks of time seem to be harder and harder to get these days.

Let me explain.

As anyone who did anything close to meditation will tell you it takes time for the mind to settle – that is for the frantic activity of thought to subdue enough for the mind to regain some clarity. Only then one can do something with it – meditate or pray – or think. That time varies but for me – as for most people – it is somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. This is – to be clear – not the time needed to think of something, but to get ready to start to think. Then you need some more time to think of anything that has any deeper meaning, sense or value.

But today’s world is full of buzz and staying fully connected all the time hurts this process immensely. The worst is of course when one sits at a computer connected to Internet – then this whole thought-killing processing not only has endless supply of data fueling it, but also can grow and expand to consume all mental energy. For example, an e-mail might contain a word you don’t know, you search the web, find a Wikipedia page on it, read it, in it find 4 more interesting links, open those, read some of them, find new links, then another e-mail comes, then phone rings, then someone types in Skype chat, you read, reply, turn back to e-mail, then someone comes in to your room to ask a question – bam! two hours have passed and you don’t how!

Sounds familiar? Seems today many struggle with exactly this. Huge overload of incoming data and interruptions that doesn’t ever allow mind to even begin to settle. This is why many people get their best ideas now while traveling, because it is usually when their thought process has a chance to go on uninterrupted longer. But portable Internet devices (like the iPhone) and cell phones do all they can to ensure we stay connected even while on the move – and keep on processing.

One more thing worth noting here is that processing is quite pleasurable – you get the feeling you feed info to your brain, and for some of us – me included – this is way way more addictive than any other pleasure. Our advantage is our mind, our edge is our ability to process quick, we win by knowing things sooner and better than others so we get high on sucking info – but we must not forget to stop and think sometimes.

Processing is not inherently evil – it gives us the data we need to come up with ideas or solutions or serve as inspiration. However, to make any use of this data we take in all day we must learn to switch all the incoming lines off – and think. Realizing what you do most of time is not thinking even though it looks similar goes a long way towards consciously finding chunks of time our minds need to think.

Yet another example of Google’s power to manipulate what the Internet sees and what it doesn’t has just surfaced thanks to those sites, that are not (yet?) hosted on Google. It seems Google is laying engineers off (no big deal – many companies are these days, Microsoft just did) and is also trying to hide the information about it in its own search results and on Google News pages. Read the source.

Now, I was positing Google can do the same with political or social views its owners don’t agree with. I was ridiculed by those who still believe in Google’s slick PR front. But the truth is that power corrupts and huge power corrupts greatly. For Google the temptation to manipulate the content stream that passes through them was just too big. And this just proves how bad it is for the public if content streams are monopolized.

And it also shows that corporations are just corporations. Google always tried to be “cool” to hide the reality of what it was becoming, but in the end there is no escaping it. When bad times strike there is no “cool” anymore – there is just the almighty balance sheet. And attempts to hide it are both scary – and pathetic.

It has been reported recently that Amazon has sold 500k of their ugly Kindle readers in 2008. In fact, despite the slump of sales of almost everything in the last month of 2008 the demand was so high they did run out of them in November.

This shows the power of content. Kindle isn’t the best of digital readers. And it is ugly. And there are limitations to the content you “purchase”. In fact, a book you “buy” from the Amazon’s Kindle store is not your property, you can’t do nothing with it other than read it on the device. For example you can’t give it to friends. Or print few pages. So in fact it is a long-term lease that will function as long as Amazon and your Kindle will work.

But the Kindle wins with other digital readers and other more open ebook formats because of the amount of well catalogued content – books, magazines – you can easily get on the device for moderate prices. In fact, even my father’s book on composites which is a scientific textbook on an exotic subject is available as a Kindle book.

Amazon clearly had connections and power to work with major publishers to get their books as Kindle ebooks. And they had easier time persuading them to do so, as because of the closed nature of the whole system they could offer publishers more reassurances their content will be protected. Plus, small, independent publishers can use their very simple publishing platforms to get their books to Kindle with very little cost. The effect is that user buying Kindle gets an easy access to a huge library of books, something no other reader offers. That is why the Kindle “brick” has gained momentum many doubted it will ever get (me included). Once again it was proven that content is the king and the key, not devices to deliver it.

The only hope now for open ebook formats and other readers remains the fact that Amazon Kindle is not available anywhere outside the US. That leaves a huge market open for other devices. And lets hope other players will use it, because the future where digital reading is monopolized by a closed platform is not a vision to cherish.

I wrote recently that I think we’ll see less funding for startups in the near future – it seemed pretty obvious. Now the New York Times is reporting that this is exactly what’s happening.

First to disappear are so called “angels” – small private investors that were giving initial funding to startups in their very early phases of growth. Angels became an almost indispensable part of the startup game helping young companies become interesting enough for venture capitalists to look at. Funding their provided was much easier to get (if you knew right people in the US) than VCs and helped startups put together initial business plans, teams and mockups/demos of products/sites/etc.

But, as the crisis unfolds and economy corrects the mistakes in resource allocation to consuming (2/3rds of US economy is – or rather was – consumer based) angels face same problems as everyone. Some of them even used to invest money that was in fact credit against the value of their real estate or stock holding from past successful ventures. As value of both falls down so does their capacity to invest. Plus, with all the pessimism in the media people are even less willing to take any risks with their money looking rather for safety and savings.

But there is an upside to all of this, which I have pointed out in my New Year’s article: all that means better quality. Yes, less startups will get money, but those who will get funded will be those with better teams, better business plans and better, more innovative ideas.

Quantity will go down, so the quality will go up. This is good news, even if that means we won’t get another dozen of new, “unique” social networking sites.