A weekly round up of news and views from the tech, creative and business world.
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Living in a material world
Google’s presentation last week at the yearly I/O conference revealed a brand that is increasingly design-conscious. Google’s ambition for the Android brand lies beyond a smartphone operating system, envisioning a digital ecosystem that breaks free of touch screens to quite literally reshape the world around us. The Android brand is set to encompass wearables with Android Wear, vehicles with Android Auto, and living-room entertainment with Android TV. These experiences are united with a distinct visual direction outlined in a newly announced set of ‘Material Design’ guidelines, which attempt to visually rationalise the overwhelming blob of services Google has grown.
Material Design outlines principles for a coherent user interface and experience on Android devices. Building on Google’s use of bold, clean colours and visual references to the physical properties of paper or ‘cards’, Material Design emphasises depth and tactility in interface design, featuring behaviours that raise or lower selected elements, or create ripples to highlight interaction.
Google rarely escapes comparison to Apple, but it appears that the businesses are becoming increasingly similar. Apple’s latest announcements at WWDC focused on establishing the iPhone as the centre of developing digital ecosystems. Google already owns a mature and highly integrated set of services which have become our digital infrastructure: these can only benefit from embracing the kind of rigorous design-thinking that is so deeply ingrained in Apple’s heritage.
What does a ‘socially responsible’ company look like? Probably not like Facebook. The ubiquitous social network is in a lot of trouble after being widely condemned for an experiment conducted in 2012, in which it deliberately made around 155,000 people sad, just to see if it could. Recently published results reveal the experiment hid elements like emotional words and posts from the news feed of 689,003 unwitting participants, to test what effect that had on the statuses or “Likes” that they then posted or reacted to. The report concludes that online, emotions are contagious: “When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.”
The study has been severely criticised for its invasion of privacy, with many users deeply uncomfortable with Facebook’s attempts to change behaviour without the knowledge or explicit consent of its users. Use of Facebook has already been linked to negative effects on self-esteem and mental health, and considering the scale and reach of the social network, academics have expressed shock at the lack of sensitivity or established ethical guidelines for experiments conducted through Facebook, or other businesses involved in the mass collection of user data.
Facebook’s success has been gained wholly through the sacrifice of privacy: it offers a platform for us to spy on friends and stalk exes in return for collecting intimate details about our own lives. Facebook has been recording how we react to content for years; it was arguably only a matter of time before it started to work out why. Those of us that feel uncomfortable with being recorded in such intricate – and intimate – detail, may be wise to escape Facebook now, before it changes your mind.
In a spree of tech-related rulings this week, the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) began (well, continued, really) to show their age, ruling that Aereo does in fact violate copyright law by re-distributing over-the-air television broadcasts. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the ruling is that the SCOTUS’s technological illiteracy is demonstrated even in their attempt to describe what Aereo does:
“It sells its subscribers a technologically complex service that allows them to watch television programs over the Internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.”
What Aereo does is lease each individual user an antenna that receives over-the-air television signals and then transmits the received signals to the user: it’s not hugely different to putting an antenna on the roof of your house, except your antenna is somewhere remote. Using an antenna to pick up a digital television signal is still free. Aereo just does this for you.
The justices proved they’re not always technophobes: this week also saw the ruling that police officers need a warrant to search your cell phone during an arrest, with an acknowledgement of the “depth” of the cell phone and the amount of personal information held on it. However, the problem for Aereo, and other businesses that have set out to redefine a long-established system, is the way their fate is decided. The Supreme Court’s rulings must be based on precedence: meaning we define what is right for the future based on what we know has been right in the past. This has worked for a long time. Now, however, we are beginning to see a world where constantly defining what is right based on analogies and precedent may hinder forward progress. If we want to see a world where businesses like Aereo, Lyft and AirBnB can continue to innovate, we must consider the impact that ageing Supreme Court Justices, and outdated justice systems, will have on the future of business and technology.
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