As information and its connected systems grow to fill the industrial core, borders separating disparate fields are fading.

This is the subject. Its aspects are broad and multiple.

Informed by my experience and investigations in technology and media since the 1990s, with emphasis on recent trends in data, mobile, networks, and the cloud, The Age of Convergence is a summation, through a collection of related essays, of what I believe to be a major new economic era.

An attempt is made to render the abstract in a pragmatic manner and the pragmatic as universally as possible. The aim is to present the material usefully to students and practitioners alike, realizing that these circles overlap, much as they do for me.

From the “Afterword,” page 163:

Pattern recognition, data visualization, information processing are the recounting of stories. Facebook timelines, Twitter streams, LinkedIn updates, Google searches and results, much like reality TV, are stories, too. Stock charts and analyses, financial ratios and credit ratings, research reports, are variations, commentaries, stories about stories, and so on. Journalistic content and entertainment product, often interchangeable, are stories unabashedly, if previously listed examples are maybe less self-aware. When an entrepreneur pitches a venture capitalist, a story is told much like a filmmaker pitching a studio chief. In turn, investors tell stories to explain the risk that’s taken. When we speak about a new era of information, a new economy based on information flow and connectivity, we are speaking about a world of stories.

This book contains the story of a pattern that is starting to shape.

(As I break from this blog in coming weeks or months or more, please follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook. I hope to see you there, or in the archives.)

Update (October 11): Now also available in a Kindle eBook version.

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I began to jot down impressions on digital technology and the sector’s evolution in this blog in late-2009. It was approximately the time when Twitter was turning mainstream, and I have continued the exercise with regularity through Twitter’s IPO announcement. These milestones are worthy of consideration as bookends of sorts. Back to this idea again down below…

As the name suggests – Discourse and Notes – the blog was foremost my way of keeping notes and organizing my thoughts as I was studying. At first, the financial crisis had just taken place, it was the time of policy and debate and some alarm, and Sequoia Capital had produced a set of warning slides that were making their way around the web, “Good Times RIP.” It was a time when, in the technology ecosystem, several trends were developing in tandem: Traditional venture capital was on its way to consolidation, new forms of venture funding were emerging in seed finance (some think, to an eventual point of bubbling over), the startup community was growing fast (partly as a side-effect of seed funding growth, partly on the heels of a weak job environment, partly in reflection of diminishing startup costs), and the largest technology incumbents were beginning to amass enormous cash troves.

Having been involved in finance and business strategy as a principal and advisor to the media and telecommunications sectors since the 1990s, I approached my study of new trends in digital technology with a historical eye, mindful of the stages that had led us to this point. But there was something wholly unique and almost strange in the phenomena. This was an era of its own, I felt, and one that would some day be looked back upon with awe and reverence, like, say, the industrial revolution before. None of the commonly used names to reference what some thought was happening – web 2.0, or mobile web, or social web – captured the true bigness.

With this inherent preconception always in my mind, a conclusion drawn before the facts were gathered, I focused on and noted the continuations, similarities, and overlaps in a sector that was not technically “new” (as its occasional designation of “new media” implies) but rather an extension. And I sought to draw associations between the nature of new business models (and technologies) and their predecessors and counterparts in the segment. Simultaneously, I also detected patterns taking shape in the capital markets and the funding structures that underpinned the modes of innovation and business building. These, too, like the underlying platforms that they sponsored and financed, while coming to resemble and extend from well-trodden fundamental terrain, began to manifest new patterns of their own, in public as well as private markets, which were increasingly like a mixture of new and old, equity and debt, individual and institutional.

In short, a picture was coming into focus that seemed all the time more familiar despite its apparent novelty. This was in the early and middle years within the timeframe in question, and it set the stage for subsequent developments and observations.

I noticed a progression in the startup landscape that took media and technology companies in the direction of commerce and retail, which appeared like a new sub-segment, transactional media. And as social media grew and matured, I began to see an overlap between these connectivity platforms and their counterparts in other media subdivisions – entertainment, information, and again, transactional. While these observations gelled, a picture of general combination between the four spheres took shape, based on their respective anchor tenants and their constant movements towards each other: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, at least symbolically, for there are many other examples… And this convergence continues.

But it didn’t end there, and in fact, as it turns out, this was only an exemplary start, an early foundation. There was the emergence of new financial services and markets, which led to new forms of banking and capital flows and research, and which drew attention to the vagueness of the line between what is a media company and what is a financial institution. When Bloomberg acquired Business Week, when American Express began to dabble with Twitter and Foursquare, when LendingClub was formed with Wall Street sponsorship in Silicon Valley, the notion came home to roost. And I asked myself why the lines and differences were fading, why these convergences were happening, and where it would likely lead. The answer, increasingly, came down to information and the mechanization of knowledge.

With hindsight, looking back from the current milestone in question, it more recently occurred to me that as these notes were being scripted through the series of essays that had come to form this blog, a book was actually being written. It is a book about an era and it is a summation of my analysis of what the era represents. Convergences – between media’s four spheres, between media and commerce, media and finance, finance and commerce, hardware and software, technology and consumerism, early-stage and later-stage businesses, early-stage and later-stage capital, and several other blends – are recurring motifs in this book. And there is, as an overarching theme, the convergence of all of these into and around information and its processing.

The Age of Convergence - my new book – is the product of the exercise described. It contains a selection of essays from this blog, re-edited, reordered and categorized, in many cases updated and corrected, so as to stand as a current and self-contained product. The goal is not to make a forecast or promote a set of recipes, but maybe to take an inventory of items as a starting point, from where we can begin to formulate a view, a strategy, a structure… An attempt has been made to render the abstract in a pragmatic manner and the pragmatic as universally as possible. The aim is to present the material usefully to students and practitioners alike, realizing that these circles overlap, much as they have and do for me.

For your enjoyment, the book is now available at Amazon (click here) and will be arriving at other bookstores in the coming weeks. An eBook version is also on its way, so please check back if that is your preference. Until the Amazon page is completed with “look inside” features and other details, you can peruse this preview for a better sense of the material.

Going forward, I plan to take a break from Discourse and Notes, as the subject described has been brought to some finality with the publication of my book. I will remain active in other social media, however, as I have been, and may come back to this, in one way or another, before long, and as new currents begin to form.

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The elementary particles of a business, for purposes of this discussion, are the largely irreducible components that make up its core. These particles don’t so much comprise forms of capital and labor, technology and systems, markets and locations, as the elements beneath the surface of those building blocks. These are the pieces that shape the structure, which shapes the enterprise.

In finance and markets, for instance, under the surface of capital flows and resources that drive these, are the analytics and decision making. In commerce, before the eventual sales and advertising, are the supply chain investigation, market segmentation and targeting. In industry there is engineering and design and efficiency optimization. In healthcare there is research of both product and result.

What all these elementary particles share – and as is widely recognized as a defining feature in a knowledge-based economy – is that these are all information-centric. And what is becoming an increasingly common feature of information and its processing in our time, is that this is increasingly mechanized. Knowledge is thus decomposed into elementary particles in turn, and from there rebuilt.

By necessity of mechanization, the decomposition of knowledge into elementary particles that can be collected, packaged, analyzed, and distributed, creates a homogeneous texture that is data. The machine requires it, because the machine only understands instruction and formula, and this can only be communicated mathematically. That is a large-scale equalizer.

In other words, when elementary particles across a variety of fields are increasingly reduced to data and its processing, then these fields, on some level, are the same. If we define the elementary particles of a business, as we did for purposes of this discussion, as the largely irreducible components that make up its core, then fields that share similar elementary particles are essentially similar fields. This is a simplification.

It is a simplification because there is nuance and there is specialization, and knowledge is complex to say the least. It is a simplification because technology is not yet at the point where all manner of intricacy and subtlety that the human mind can comprehend is replicable by algorithm. But technology is heading that way and has made enormous strides.

As such technical progress continues, not only will essential differences between segments diminish (math and formula being transportable), but these fields will as a result lend themselves more readily to combination. We’re noticing the beginning of such combinations in the growing overlap of media and commerce and finance and markets. And we will continue to see the phenomenon unfold – perhaps more deeply and more widely – in our era of convergence.

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Pattern recognition, data visualization, information processing are the recounting of stories. Facebook timelines, Twitter streams, LinkedIn updates, Google searches and results, much like reality TV, are stories, too. Stock charts and analyses, financial ratios and credit ratings, research reports, are variations, commentaries, stories about stories, and so on. Journalistic content and entertainment product, often interchangeable, are stories unabashedly, if previously listed examples are maybe less self-aware. When an entrepreneur pitches a venture capitalist, a story is told much like a filmmaker pitching a studio chief. In turn, investors tell stories to constituencies to make them understand the risk that’s taken.

When we speak about a new era of information, a new economy based on information flow and connectivity, we are speaking about a world of stories. The world was always one of stories on some level, but this was more obviously manifested in myth, philosophy, politics, religion, or art. It may be that these realms have expanded, or it may be that new fields have been introduced to the fray as a result of digital technology and global interconnection. More likely, things are the same as always, but we now recognize the stories more clearly as a part of our practical – not only spiritual – existence… which are anyway directly linked.

In the world of investments and finance there have been notable examples in recent times of leadership figures who came out of journalism rather than what may be considered more conventional breeding grounds. This is not a cause but a result of the environment described. When we think of Steve Jobs, recognized as a great – maybe the greatest – entrepreneur of the information age, we think of a visionary and communicator. Steve Jobs was, in short, a great story teller. Stories do not have to be fibs, although they sometimes are, but rather messages that are unified and whole, and it helps a good deal if the message is also interesting.

Theorists of the traditional variety have liked to speculate about the vague distinction between story teller, story, and audience, although these speculations took place well before the advent of social networks and the idea of user generated content in its modern sense. Perhaps these days the notion of subject and object overlap seems far less speculative and even the most classical of the dreamers would now come across as pragmatist or, what might have been even more offensive to some of them, opportunist jumpers on the bandwagon. Timing is everything, and there are few truly horrible ideas in the end.

In the here and now, however, in this our age of convergence between sectors, between technologies, between strategies and directions and styles, an era in which information and its flow are the gravitational center, the story and the story teller are taking on a central significance. In our time, the art of the narrative should (and probably will) come to be seen as a partner (in some cases even the lead) in a complex alliance with technology and science on the same side. We will (and probably should) respect the great stories and the story tellers as we respect innovation.

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A study has been conducted and we now have reason to believe that wealth is better than poverty. In fairness to the study, however, which is complex and quite interesting, its subject is wealth in the context of its network effect. In short, the number of nodes to more wealth increases with wealth, and these nodes are self-reinforcing and multiply, much like a network does through its utility. The parallels between wealth concentration and network economics are important to understand, I believe, especially in an era of deep and wide connectivity on one hand, and rapid transformations on the other.

We have seen, so far, in the era described, that networks have been quick to rise and sometimes quick to fall. The ascent of Instagram, for instance, is now legendary, but so is the collapse of MySpace (which hasn’t completely vanished). These examples point to a fickle volatility that sometimes manifests in consumer preferences, and it is true that wealth per se could be more stable if properly managed. (This is a general discussion, by the way, about business and institutional as much as individual wealth, and the distinctions anyway can be blurry.) But we should probably be careful not to confuse wealth with capital, the latter being actual and precise while the former also contains its options and possibilities.

As we consider network effect and the idea of wealth begetting more of it, we are more truly speaking of wealth in the sense of its potential rather than preservation. And as is so often the case these days, the subject is directly linked to information flow, much in the same way that networks in the traditional sense are also – whether these are of the social, email, telephone or other communication varieties. Markets, which are networks of sorts, are information exchanges in which information leads and capital follows, and through this mechanism wealth rises and sinks… Which leads us to another distinction, that between private and less private networks, between organized exchanges and enclosures. A networked information-centric mechanism exists in both cases, even if the systems of operation are different.

Regardless of the specifics, however, the characteristic shared by such financial networks and their counterparts in social or telecommunications spheres, is the importance of immediacy and relevance. Information and its accessibility does not build wealth if it arrives or is processed too late, or if it is flawed to begin with. In an era of deep and wide connectivity on one hand, and rapid transformations on the other, the dynamic of wealth creation (or erosion) will reflect the opportunities and risks inherent in the era. Speed, nimbleness, adaptability are features of value, and just as information access now reflects these features universally, so also information processing and its resulting decisions have to be mirrored in the same to keep pace.

This is where the balance of power – for lack of a better term – may be prone to shift, between large networks of stored wealth and a fragmented base of – as it were – ankle-biters. If access in a networked environment is equalized, then the competitive edge lies in its actionability. This is not only a question of understanding and vision, but also a mechanical matter based on, among other things, the freedom to act. Capital, as distinct from wealth, goes a long way to procuring that freedom, but it isn’t enough and it isn’t an asset that can’t be replicated. Sometimes, it is observed, that largeness can approach a limit where it becomes an obstacle and where its network value breaks.

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A business name, like the title of a book, is a core feature of the enterprise. It reflects the underlying asset, the culture, the origins, and might at times predict (or better still, determine) the outcome. Much like the title of a book may on some level contain its conclusion, so too the name of a business – like DNA – carries a portion of its fate. A name can define a product, or the product may give substance to the name. The interplay is the thing – each transformed by and containing the other – where the name is both seed and packaging.

(A digression: Borges, who knew all books and titles well, was known to say – in reference to the Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night – that its existence and its placement on the shelf might almost suffice for him, making the reading superfluous. Or words to that effect. He was particular to refer to it by that title, as opposed to more popular abbreviations like the Arabian Nights or the Thousand and One Nights. I think I know what he meant, and feel similarly about one or two Philip K. Dick titles – say, The Game Players of Titan, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, We Can Remember it for You Wholesale – or less fantastic ones, like The Man Without Qualities. I might go on, there are thousands of titles…

And everybody has favorites… And parallels can be found outside of books; there are examples even in cities. New York, New York – large, magnificent, combining both past and future – it sounds so nice/they had to name it twice… Or Paris, which echoes the name of a devious young lad who caused quite a stir in his day on account of beauty. Or the one that holds a most special place in our cultural imagination: Las Vegas, in its literal translation, the meadows. Knowing what we know about Las Vegas and its spectacular artifice, loving it for that very reason, and given its location inside nothing and excessive heat, one could not possibly improve on the perfection of that title.)

These matters come to mind having recently finished the Steve Jobs biography and seen the movie, and having found the origins of Apple Computer, Inc. to be a fascinating subject – the naming of the company an inspired stroke. In the context of a dynamic and evolving environment that is one day computers, the next media, then commerce, and really all of these together, a technical name would have been restricting, and a cute fluffy name would have cheapened the experience of an artful product. Apple – and we can each of us interpret the word and symbol in any multitude of ways, from nature to Newton to the Bible – now also has a new significance in the popular lexicon. Contrariwise, Microsoft or Yahoo! (exclamation included) are unlikely to share that wonder.

Just as the title of a book on some level contains the book’s entire story, so a business name contains much of its fate. One must be careful in the selection, but more truly perhaps one is picked by it.

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There’s been debate at the economic fringes lately about the idea of skin in the game. It is a complicated subject, like everything in economics, accompanied by its own analytics and mathematical models, which, like everything in economics, serve to prove beyond the shadow of doubt that common sense still dictates. To prove by algebra, as the saying goes, that such-and-such trails so-and-so in the causality of what-not, which isn’t as circular a demonstration as one might assume on site. The arguments, which have been fascinating, have led me to reflect on context and definition. What, in the sense of the debate, constitutes “skin,” and what is actually the “game”?

By way of background, the subject is centered on the notion that an opinion, a word of advice, a recommendation, a passionate conclusion in any field, but especially in one as complex as economics and financial markets, should be taken with a grain of salt (to say the least), if the proponent is not also at risk of loss from following the direction. The root of the debate (in which the advocates on both sides should ideally themselves be at risk of loss for being wrong) seems to be in the financial crisis and corresponding attention that banking and the banking system have garnered. But the same precepts could easily apply to other fields, directly or indirectly related. (Directly or indirectly, most fields lead to finance, banking and economics anyway.)

To keep to what I try to know best – which is to say, the topics that have recurred in this space over the years – I look to the dynamic of capital markets and enterprise – fertile territory for skin in the game discussion. An entrepreneur, especially a founder, has certainly got skin in his or her own game. An investor who manages his or her own money is at risk in the same way. From these extremes we look to their polar opposites, to employees and consultants, and then to variations and permutations between the extremes. This grey area is where most of the world exists, and the greatest complexity is right there with it. To contemplate issues in terms of black and white may be useful as a guidepost, but we mustn’t get stuck in that theoretical muck too long.

With this background, let’s go back to the topic of definitions. Skin: The place where we feel pain and sometimes pleasure (though not the only place). In the context of this discussion, it is our ability to suffer or to benefit in proportion with the rightness or wrongness of our position. According to this definition, do gain and loss have the same meaning universally or is it relative to the individual case? And is the nature of the gain or loss to be measured in financial terms only, or could it contain other facets in whole or in combination, which may or may not be quantifiable? Game: The theater in which the action happens, guided by certain rules of engagement. According to this definition, is the game identical for every player and every piece? Do all subjects and objects share the same experience and can their effectiveness be measured similarly?

To illustrate the complexity of these questions, and thus the murkiness of the idea, we can look to several scenarios from actuality. Investors prefer to back operators who have already demonstrated their ability to succeed – yet, does each subsequent endeavor not become less crucial because there is less to lose in the broader context? And does not this same notion apply to fund managers as well? And where anyway do we differentiate between an investor’s skin and talking one’s book? Is there not an incentive to promote a position, regardless of what it is, right or wrong, especially because one has skin in the game, and is one’s genuineness not compromised for that very reason? Lastly, if skin in the game can be measured, and if this measure is a crucial determinant (or at least risk mitigant) of some expected outcome, then does the author’s randomness theory become less extreme?

In the last analysis, given the intertwining and convolution (which only touch the very tip of an enormous iceberg), it’s the portfolio that matters; and we should probably think in terms of plural forms, say, skins in the game, or skin in the games, or some messy combination of both.

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Industries can be defined by their language, on some level, even if there are differences of accent and dialect. Although there are aspects of language common to all business – for instance, the accounting language of profit and loss – this is akin to the fundamentals of grammar, the basic logic of which carries across variances of vocabulary and culture. To continue with this analogy, what sets industries apart is not the grammar but the terminology, expressions, definitions, the nouns and verbs and adjectives and grunts and other such symbols that collectively make up a bond, an understanding, and a shared system.

There may be familiarity in the translation, but on the surface the concept of, say, same-store sales in retail, would be an alien term to an oil exploration firm thinking about its equivalent idea in proven producing reserves, or a drug company thinking in terms of its patent portfolio. The translatability is not the point – as most words have their counterpart in most languages – but rather the ways in which traditional industries from commerce to energy to healthcare to finance, media, manufacturing, education, you name it, have been rooted in and also shaped by the terminology that mirrors value drivers.

Where I am going with this preamble is here: As information technology is adopted by all industry segments to a greater and greater extent, the vocabulary of bits, analytics, storage, distribution, security, mobility, processing, integration, and so on, is creating a bridge between languages that were previously united only by accounting grammar. What’s more, for many of the traditional sectors – notably finance, commerce and media – information processing and technology are becoming the core business itself, and we have reason to believe that other segments are following suit. (Note the industrial internet, robotics, and 3D printing as key trends in manufacture.)

When thus the grammar as well as the vocabulary itself start to blend across segments, and when this is a reflection of the deepening information (tech and processing) roots taking hold everywhere, the value drivers of previously disparate sectors begin to overlap. When value drivers overlap, there is little to actually separate one sector from another, and for all intents and purposes a convergence will have taken place. This is not a statement about causality or sequence, nor is it a prediction, it is rather an observation of certain realities with very real consequences that should be watched and understood.

The economic nature of information and its related technologies is particular, and the extent to which our standard economic models are ideally suited for an information economy is unclear. In debates about policy and its results, inflation and deflation, the increasingly pronounced divergence between economic performance and capital markets, even in debates about the qualities of economic study itself, unless this new context is specifically factored in, the argument on either side will still be incomplete and perhaps altogether misguided.

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Between idea and realization is the world. Between will and representation, possibility and monetization, between optionality and asset, or, as the analyst observed, between thought and expression, lies a lifetime. Realization diminishes the idea as expression diminishes the thought. So, too, the asset diminishes its options. Or, as another investor put forth, what looks large from the distance close up is never that big. These things apply to finance and business building, which are related, and many other things also.

Industries and markets, technology and capital, and also many other things, have been in a state of transition, a state of becoming, somewhere in between idea and realization, between optionality and asset. The evolution has been rooted in information and its flows, and is marked by the convergence of previously disparate segments. New filters will be formulated as will new lenses for evaluating the economic opportunity and risk. While this takes place, forms and structures of capital will evolve, much in the same way that industry and technology are evolving.

As it takes time for buildings to be reshaped and cities redesigned, so also it will take some time for large systems to be fully reconfigured. But it is happening, it is happening, and we can already discern parts of the eventual architecture. These are marked by fragmentation on one level, and consolidation on another. And a great deal of activity is concentrated on two core areas (that are themselves combining): investment and technology development.

When information flows freely and is openly accessible by multiple constituencies, the technology opportunity broadens and feeds on itself. Investment opportunities are enriched and the investor base deepens. The world between idea and realization, possibility and monetization, might turn a little faster and be somewhat smaller. The scatter plot between thought and expression, in this case, is more concentrated and, by the same token, sterile.

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Information – its nature, its processing systems, its value and economics – has been a central topic in this space for some time. The subject has been dealt with from the perspective of enterprise and investing, reflecting the increased adoption of information technology in both these cojoined and opposing branches of commerce.

For the most part in these discussions there has been a tacit understanding that information – synonymous with knowledge and, in the more technical sense, data – is to be approached almost in the abstract, as a concept, or, most materially speaking, a set of bits. This isn’t to say that the reality of information isn’t as thick as that of ice cubes, but we tend not to associate information with the physical world quite as directly as stirring up a drink.

The physical world, however, is not only where all information is produced, processed, and put to work, but where knowledge morphs into its material manifestations. Increasingly these days the morphing is not so much an evolution or progression as it is an actual overlap. The worlds of the abstract and the physical are combining not only in the analytic sense but in the very substance of physical reality and performance.

The self-driving car is as clear a representation as any of the merger between information and metal, as is the assembly line in some related manufacture. The printing of physical objects, the monitoring of physical health, the processing of physical commerce, these are more than instances of hardware and software integration. These are examples of information and three-dimensional substance combining.

In certain ways such was always the case. Wittingly or not, a toothbrush combines information with utility in a physical object. But there is always a broker in the transaction, a human intermediary. When the toothbrush is able to optimize the number of strokes and correct their angle on its own, this combination is a new object altogether and the disintermediation that occurs is a new event to be noted.

The consequences and repercussions of the toothbrush example – which was made up to illustrate on a small scale a bigger and much more than trivial point – will not be limited to personal hygiene. As information processing and technology enters the physical world in a very real way, the place of the individual in relation to the real world is altered. (The world itself, made up of individuals, changes.) In this example it was referred to as a disintermediation – maybe that’s one way of looking at it. For sure there are others, and these are going to cross into multiple fields.

The self-driving car – a real example that many predict to become a commonplace mass-market product within a decade or so – has the potential to change not only personal habits but also city planning, for starters. It has the potential to make both the DMV and cabbies obsolete. It will impact the way we think about travel and commuting, and what we do during our commute. In just this handful of speculations there is sociology, psychology, culture, politics, and that which always tends to tie these together in a jumbled and lopsided package: economics. Less intensely, the changes have already begun.

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