Erik Sundelöf

entrepreneur, thinker and Swede

A Shed of A Plant

150 150 eriks

I attended SXSW 2009 down in Austin, Texas a few days back. I was thinking back to see a theme between all the panels. Anticipation. Faith. The opportunity. Being lost. I think most people there realized the times are tough and that we are experiencing one of the biggest crossroads of our time. We have a set of, in many ways intimidating, challenges ahead of us. Challenges as diverse as environmental, political and recently a seriously wounded and rotten financial market. These challenges will force us to start questioning where we are, why we came here and more importantly how we will overcome these.

It is a responsibility as a citizen of this world.

The panels really breathed, and yet not at all breathed, this change. They all tried to address the challenges in their little niche area, but sadly enough nothing groundbreaking or innovative was really being put forward. I have to say I felt a bit disappointed. I caught myself fading out of the discussion when they did not really challenge previous conceptions and beliefs of the world (here mostly in the shape of the web and the media industry).

This is the time of change. That is a funny word. Change… We throw it around frequently. Do we really know what it means? What it really means to go through change?

What I do know it is intimidating to most people.

I guess this is something like growing up. Finding your identity. Meeting yourself. The world of today is in a serious identity crisis. We have lost our identity. Why? Who knows. But we have. We have to find it again. It will probably be a different identity than we knew. I think that would be awesome.

Personally this is a quest for me. I am a 33 years old guy born and raised in Sweden, a pretty calm, democratic neat wonderful little place in northern Europe. Some say it is even one of the few idylls on earth. Some say we have it too good there. Maybe we do. I have been informed about everything – wrongs, rights and everything else – ever since I made my stumbling steps in this world (and probably even before that). I have been taught since kindergarten how to behave towards my fellow human beings, what they expect from me, what is expected from me, and how to treat other people with respect regardless of skin, ethnicity, cultural background or religion. There is a big emphasis in Sweden on being able to have your own opinion and being able to express it. It is also a big emphasis on conformity – for the better, and for the worse.

Anyhow.

In addition the schools in Sweden, which are predominantly public, we are very keen on teaching in depth what has happened through history and how it has affected us without anything being censored. We also study a lot of the present issues around the world and the roots of the issues we see with the focus on looking on all sides.

Ever since I was around 12 years old I have had access to computers and played with them constantly. I wrote programs and then especially a text- based golf game. During my time in college, the IT-boom began and I got my own personal Internet connection and gained immediate access to information and could follow the growth of the Internet and the web from the “orchestra seats”. Astonished by the freedom online, I usually spent hours in front of the computer browsing the web for all sorts of information, and I quickly started to interact via various chat programs and instant messengers. I was amazed and intrigued by the technology.

I can, therefore, honestly say that I have been able to read whatever I want to, and have (at least the right to) my own opinion. Basically, I have spent 11 years of my time at a university level including PhD studies, a Stanford Fellowship and working as an associate director at Stanford with alliances between Stanford and Sweden, which has made me a full-feathered, full-blooded academic guy. I have become who I am because I’ve lived in a country where that is possible, and more importantly, because I know I have (or the very least should have) the right to do so.

Now consider some boy or girl in a developing country, emerging democracy, who might be living in state run by a dictator, corrupt regime or even just a troubled area. By troubled area I mainly refer to an occupied territory. What kinds of information will that boy or girl have access too? Who will provide this information? Will it be accurate? Will it be diverse? Will it be free and uncensored? What difference between that information and the information I can see, hear or read is there? Will they feel as entitled as I do to both access and to create that information? Who knows… What I know is that they should have the choice. At least in my opinion. That is their right. That really should be their right.

Unfortunately, alternative news sources in media are a rare occasion in the world. Too rare. However, via cellphones you will be able to share news, as the cellphones are ubiquitous, immediate and simple. By creating a tool for anyone in the entire world to share their stories at anytime from anywhere about anything you will start to bridge this media divide and create a more diverse media scene. We definitely need it.

It is something that is very important as everyone has the right to have an opinion and the right to express it. The freedom of expression. The freedom of speech. The freedom of the individual.

The freedom. The freedom.

This discussion might seem a bit far out, and a bit too philosophical, but a big issue for the areas I mentioned previously is that the sources of news coverage are very scarce and limited. There is a tremendous gap here between the media coverage, even though the media in the “developed” world has their deep issues in coverage as well. In a constrained landscape either by the number of news sources or narrow owner structure you will have an issue here. It becomes very easy to force an opinion on people, and not have an open discussion. Take for instance Iran, which spends billions of dollars on filtering the web for information that the regime does not feel should go online or opinions they have decided the people should not hear. If you are exposed to one news angle, that angle will become the truth even if it is far from the truth. It is the version you will hear. The only version. It is easier to believe something than not believe anything. You feel part of something, even though this something is artificial.

A few weeks back during the WeMedia conference, I recently spoke to a guy from Cuba when I was down in Miami drinking a Mojito. He told me that when his friends and family came to visit from Cuba, he was amazed how “inaccurate” their perception was. He has to spend time explaining that the stories about Cuba are biased to one viewpoint and “filtered” by more corporate interests. Or is it? I really do not know. Yet ironically who knows who and what is right here. He has his views. They have their views.

What is the truth? I don’t think anyone knows. I for one do not believe in the (expressed) absolute truth. The perceived truth will only be in the eyes of the beholder. Oh, there are so many analogies to quantum mechanics, but let us stay out of that one. Look up Schrödinger’s cat as an example.

Back to the conference, during which I was listening to a panel at SXSW with amongst other Clay Shirky and Deborah Schultz talking about the future publishing model. Once again the discussion between the panel and the audience ended up being polarized. “We should have free publishing. No. We should keep the old model. We need to safe the publishers.”

Hmm. I both understand and don’t understand why we find comfort in the extremes. The world, the media industry is not black and white. It is gray. It will be gray. Embrace it. Move on. Just accept it.

One of the comments from the audience on the publishing models were: “What purpose do you [publishers] serve in the future since you can’t be a filter anymore? That’s why you’re disappearing.”. I guess I see his point, but he is still wrong in my eyes. The “we-against-them” mentality will not work. It will never work. Maybe it is easier to think it would, but it is not. It is actually inhibiting to the process we need to carry out.

It was a bit symptomatic for the whole conference.

Ultimately I think and hope that we now start to think about the new identity of the media industry. How it will change and should change. Why it has to change. Find comfort in the change and see it as the shade of a plant.

I do believe SXSW is the right place for these paradigm shift thoughts and ideas. It would be embraced by the audience. The attitude of the conference participants were forward-thinking and open. They wanted to change. They wanted to innovate. They believed.

Let us find the shade of the plant that grows our future.

Ombra mai fù
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

Never has there been a shade
of a plant
more dear and lovely,
or more gentle.

67 Years Ago Since Pearl Harbor

150 150 eriks

December 7th 1941. A day never to be forgotten. The military strike against Pearl Harbor that probably change the outcome of World War II as it resulted in the US to join forces against the axis of evil. It’s ironic, sad, funny and tragic how “small” or unrelated things and decisions will make a huge difference. The love affair between two men in ancient Greece created a war and legends never forgotten. The shot in Sarajevo started World War I. Small symbolic events started the massive erosion of the Soviet Union. We are yet to see what the effects of Mumbai will be, but I am in some way dreading them. The most scary example still is 9/11. The effects and impacts of those tragic events will last generations to come I am afraid. I still wonder if the outcome would have been different if things would have been different…

I know. It doesn’t matter. It is what it is. Burying ourselves in the past will not make a difference. Today this world needs people with dedication, passion and hope that the future will be woven by understanding, collaboration and peace. Now the ultimate irony. We cannot today decide what the future will be. It will be what it will be. We but only can live our lives in the present in the way we would like the future to be.

Our lives are built up by a series of decisions. Interacting. Entangled with others. Taken in a flash of a moment. The difference is just so small. We need to start paying attention to that. “Even enemies can show each other respect…” I think it is time for us all to start showing sincere respect for our “enemies” and anyone else we have disagreements with.

Personalized Search Results – Huh?

150 150 eriks

I just read in the Wall Street Journal about the personalized search results from Google. (Sorry, no link as I read the good ol’ paper edition.) I have heard about them and seen them before. This is probably one of the things I have a very, very hard time to accept. For me, the main characteristic of any search engine is objectivity and unbiasedness of the search results. The objectivity and unbiasedness that you get the “actual facts”. I do understand the philosophical issue with that statement – “actual facts” – in itself as an actual fact indeed “was” the sun orbiting around the earth and not the other way around. Yet we all really do know what it means. Getting the results that is not necessarily what we want to see, read or realize but what the “real” answer is.

There are many occasions where personalization makes makes perfect sense. Or let us put this as filtering as the true meaning. It puts an enormous “pressure” on the user to be critical and aware of their choices during the process. I doubt the common searcher will think in these terms. I would say it is rather foolish to believe the common searcher (regardless of educational level, experience or any other adequate characteristic of the searcher) to make this decision. We are lazy by nature. Yep, we are. Nooo, Erik! Sorry, but we are… At least the predominant part. :-)

I think this is a dangerous development even tough I see all the business reasons behind it. You satisfy the “customer”. They get what they want, you get what you want. But do we as a society get what we need? Not at all. I guess that is the core issue. Who should win here? The individual or the community?

That’s a tough one.

I do not have an answer, but I do believe it is not a healthy, sustainable path… But then again that is my opinion. Right or wrong. I guess I should ask Google for it. At least now I can prove that I am right. :-)

Location-based Mashups – Old News And A Bit Out-Dated?

150 150 eriks

I would say so. I remember when I attended the first Where 2.0 conference in San Jose 2006. Location-based products and sites were just about to boom. The hype was really on. The conference was not the best ever, but became a milestone of a recognition of location-based mashups as something innovative and new. Since then it has been an explosion of services out there and several venture funded startups have come. The underlying tools such as GPS, Google Maps, Google Earth and Virtual Earth to mention some have been drastically improved, so have the concepts of mashing up. The amount of tutorials out there in location-based mashups is enormous. Just Google it and you will find page after page telling you how to do cool overlays in Google Maps in minutes or create and import pretty awesome KML file overlays in Google Earth.

However, we should now start to recognize this as a maturing concept and start to look for new angles in the coming and emerging new media arena. For instance I have looked at the Knight News Challenge. I find it a bit ironic they still have as a requirement that the project needs to benefit a specific geographical community. In my eyes that is not very innovative and a bit misplaced as a specific requirement. Preferred characteristic sure, but requirement no.

When the Knight News Challenge first started a few years back, the location-based mashups were new, exciting and interesting, but now in many ways pretty out-dated as an innovative aspect of a new media project. The media scene has moved on, and we should raise our vision. We will see more of content-based mashups where location will play a role, but will not be the sole differentiation. Of course there is room for more explorations in location-based services and mashups. However as a requirement in an (supposively) innovation stimulative news challenge, I would say it is narrowing the scope for possible projects down too much. For instance, if you would like to create a global borderless social network, based on interaction around news and opinions, it would not fit within the scope of the challenge as it doesn’t benefit a specific geographical community.

Does that really make any sense? I do not think so. Especially since the whole media industry is becoming more and more globalized. Is there room for local news and projects that aim to benefit specific geographical communities? Of course, but will they really benefit more of a niche geographical community? In a way probably. Taking out the constraint of a specific geographical community would enable the local issues are heard on a national, regional and even global level. Yet with the proper execution you can still benefit niche communities within the global one. Think of this as how much sense it would be to constrain YouTube to only one specific type of videos as for reach. Makes no sense there, so why would it make sense for geographical communities?

I would say we should have the guts and actually need to raise our eyes to see local issues in the context of other bigger issues. It is for sure an interesting balance not give the proper room for the local issues if you still consider the bigger picture. Yet that is the only way of really recognizing the local issue and give it the support it so often needs to have. In my eyes that is how you do create a substantial and sustainable change for people around the world who needs it. Especially in the media arena where the weak voices need to be amplified, not constrained.

Let the consumer be the judge whether an issue is “local” or not. They should be the true champions of that, not us creators of the projects or funders of the same. The important part here is really to realize that the more sustainable and incredibly successful projects around the world have been multipurposed ones, not the niched ones. It is about defining the right as vertical. A vertical that is as broad as possible.