Gregarious Simulation Systems

As I think of technology waves in the post PC computing era, I like asking the question – “is this a fad or a foundational technology?”

Foundational technologies reach mass adoption – i.e. reach every available user of computing – and are eclipsed by the next wave. In many ways, mobile was the breakthrough foundational technology wave. By reaching nearly every adult on the planet, the mobile wave has made personal computing decidedly mainstream. Thanks to the mobile wave, every future foundational wave will have the opportunity to touch every human being on the planet.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on how incredible that is. The world has never been more accessible.

We’ve now moved from the era of mobile to the era of machine learning. Like previous waves, machine learning benefits from the fact that everyone carries a supercomputer in their pocket. And, like previous waves, it will only be a matter of time before machine learning will be ubiquitous.

All this brings us to the more interesting question – what lies ahead? Is it going to be the blockchain? Or, will the next decade be all about wearables or augmented reality?


Except we’re going to skip speculating about the next decade. Instead, we’re going to skip a wave or two and spend time on virtual reality. I am reasonably certain that the next decade isn’t going to be about virtual reality. But, I predict we’ll all spend plenty of time in virtual reality in the 2030s and 2040s.

Gregarious Simulation Systems
As I shared here, I read Ernest Cline’s bestseller “Ready Player One” over the holidays in December and have been mulling the dystopian view of the future portrayed in the book. If you are interested in mulling the future of technology and haven’t read the book yet, I’ll relay what the person who recommended the book to me said – “You can thank me later.” :)

The story revolves around a virtual world called “The Oasis” created by a successful global behemoth “Gregarious Simulation Systems.” A large portion of the population in the story spend their lives on “The Oasis” via their avatars – it even has its own public schooling system.

I had 3 reflections from the book –

1. Virtual reality is going to be the ultimate outlet for our desire for escapism. I’d written a post looking ahead at augmented reality two years ago. In it, I wrote about two potential use cases for AR – “fun + escapism and information + insights.” Of these, I think fun + escapism (i’ll refer to this as “escapism” going forward) is going to be the area virtual reality will come to dominate.

The industry for escapism is already huge. Think about the amount of time and money spent on television, social media, gaming, and casual (or non-essential) retail. If told someone in 1919 that we’d have humans spend 5+ hours everyday in front of a television, they’d have thought we’d be out of our minds. Now, if we found a way to explain the concept of video games, imagine their reaction if we told them we’d also be spending hours watching others play video games (eSports). We love escapism so much that we’re happy to watch others indulge in it.

Our current go-tos for escapism are Facebook and Netflix. But, why would you spend your time in 2D if you had the opportunity to escape in immersive 3D?

Next, while we’re at it, imagine the potential of virtual reality for more productive pursuits. E-Learning and meetings for remote workers could both be made possible with powerful implications.

And, what if we added the ability to travel – through space and time? What if we had the opportunity to spend time looking at the view from Mount Everest’s summit while also visiting medieval Florence?

Virtual reality is coming. And it is going to be big.

2. Corporations will, on average, become fewer, bigger, and more Orwellian. The antagonist in the book are representatives from a corporation called “Innovative Online Industries.” IOI is the largest internet provider and is portrayed as the stereotypical evil corporation.

Stereotype aside, however, it did spur a few reflections. The strength of today’s largest corporations are driven, directly or indirectly, by network effects. These network effects have given rise to a world with power law dynamics at a global scale (Alex Danco’s post on the topic from 2015 is excellent) and these dynamics are not going away any time soon. Unless we see a massive change in the global trade change leading to every nation closing its doors – unlikely even if it can’t be ruled out – we are going to continue to see massive global corporations who have access to large amounts of user and employee data.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, we’re going to see few large global winners across industries. And, just as today’s winners use data to experiment in ways that might have been described Orwellian two decades ago, future global winners will use this data for social engineering in more obvious ways.

This doesn’t have to be all bad. Some of this social engineering may actually work out good for us and help “nudge” us to make better decisions. Some, but not all – we’re human after all.

3. I(/we?) should read more fiction. :) The experience of immersing myself in Ernest Cline’s 2045 version of the world brought virtual reality to life in a way no article on VR ever did. So, here’s to reading more fiction in 2019.

PS: A big thank you to everyone who responded to my previous note asking for fiction recommendations. At my current rate of reading fiction, I think I’m set for the next few decades thanks to your list. :)

The Product Marketing Sales Manager

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly Sunday series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

We kicked off this series – “Notes on Product Management” – by defining the role of a product manager and outlining the 4 key skills required to do the job – problem finding (solving for value), problem solving (solving for usability and feasibility), building effective teams, and selling.

We then spent time working through why problem finding is the most important skill and how to approach building problem statements and hypotheses. The next high priority skill we’ll spend time on is selling. For the sake of simplicity, I referred to the process of persuasion using marketing and sales as “selling.”

Today’s note, thus, is focused on how to think about Marketing and Sales in the product management process.

Why Marketing and Selling are part of the job.

“If you need to persuade someone to take action, you’re doing marketing.” | Seth Godin

Marketing, thus, goes beyond price, ads, placement, and product. It is the story about what we do and why it matters. It begins with the product and extends beyond the product.

The popular adage that people don’t buy a drill and instead buy a nine inch hole is incomplete. They don’t buy the hole or even the photo frame they hang on the wall. Instead, they buy the experience that comes from looking at something they care about. Great marketing generally starts with great products. But, great products don’t guarantee great experiences. Harley Davidson motorcycles aren’t special because they’re the most technically advanced motorcycles (they aren’t). The Harley Davidson experience, on the other hand, is something else altogether. There aren’t too many other brands who get their customers to willingly tattoo their logo.

So, what then, is the difference between marketing and sales? I’ll defer to Seth’s elegant distinction –

“Marketing tells a story that spreads. Sales overcomes the natural resistance to say yes.”

Marketing and sales are thus part of the job description of every educator, executive, and knowledge age worker. The proportion of the job involving marketing and sales might defer. But, they’re always key.

As far as the product manager goes, the importance of marketing and selling are self evident if they’re working on a (usually B2B) product that is sold by a sales team. But, these skills are just as vital internally.

It is common for marketing and sales to have a negative connotation when used in the context of the workplace. I’ve seen them used as a proxy for politics. That is unfortunate and is a result of a loss of purpose.

Good marketing and selling exist to make important change happen. Product managers who do marketing and selling right ensure their companies don’t ship their org chart. They use these skills to ensure good ideas that add value to users and customers are given a fair shot at changing the status quo. When marketing and selling is done right, the user wins and wins big.

On the other hand, when marketing and selling are used just for the purpose of career advancement, the user loses. The good news is that bad marketing and selling never survives in the long run – but, that is a discussion for another day.

How to think about marketing and selling in the product management process

As Product Managers, we are always attempting to persuade people to take action. We attempt to persuade our customers and users to use our products. We attempt to persuade our executives to resource our problem areas. We attempt to persuade our teams to do their best work. And so on.

My visual of this persuasion process is as follows.

We have 3 elements of persuasion at our disposal to make the change we seek to make –

(1) Direct marketing: This is everything that we do that is content led. When we combine easy-to-use flows and thoughtful in-product copy that attract “self-serve” customers, we’re doing direct marketing. Similarly, when we create a thoughtful strategy doc for a new initiative that wins readers over before the meeting, we’re being effective direct marketers.

(2) Sales: The other alternative is to employ the human touch. When we build a product that works and combine it with a narrative that inspires our sales team to be more effective, we are doing our job as effective salespeople. Similarly, when we facilitate an effective discussion that persuades our executive team to support that new idea that will massively improve the way we serve our users, we are selling effectively.

(3) Brand marketing: Brand marketing is the friction-reducing atmosphere in our persuasion process. When great brands deploy sales teams, they need to focus less on acquisition and more on customer success. Similarly, when we’ve acquired a reputation in our organization for someone who does great work on behalf of our users’ needs, it becomes easier to get cross-functional buy in.

The next step is to explore how we might get better at these skills – more on that in the next two posts.

A career and life sidebar: Our lives are an endless chain of persuading people to do things. And, while the process is hard enough when we’re dealing with adults, the difficulty level only goes up further when dealing with kids. While understanding how to apply these skills has a lot of obvious applicability in our careers, they extend well beyond work… making for a fascinating life-long learning journey.

3 reflections on the Echo Dot and Alexa

We recently received an Echo Dot as a gift. We tend to take a wait-and-see approach with most new technology and this was no different. 3 reflections from the first 3 weeks –

First up, our biggest use case is music – specifically children’s music. While we set the occasional reminder, Alexa and Amazon Music (free with Prime) have been an amazing add to the family. Amazon Music’s collection of children’s songs by the likes of Lisa Loeb and Caspar Babypants (the Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran equivalents for adults) is fantastic. And, it is much easier to request music by voice than fumble with a phone or an iPad while carrying a kid.

Amazon’s free music collection is also impressive. While we occasionally stumble upon a song that isn’t available, their radio stations / playlists are top notch for English music.

Second, Amazon delivers on value for money at the $30 price point. For most people, the Echo Dot might just replace the need for a speaker. I’ve written plenty about Amazon’s lead in the battle for the home – this experience has been further validation of the strength of their offering.

Third, I find it fascinating that Alexa and Google Home only offer a better manners option as part of parental controls. Why is it that we consider better manners only for the purpose of teaching kids?

From my experience, I have become more polite in the process of requesting our 2 year old to be more polite. I’d argue adults need this as much as kids do.

Perhaps the teams could consider a requirement for all users? At least one “please” for every 3 requests?

Overall, a fascinating device and one that has definitely added value.

PS: There is, of course, the downside of having a device over hear conversations. The party line from Amazon is that Alexa only hears things when she’s summoned. I am reluctant to buy that and have gone in with the assumption that anything within Alexa’s hearing range is sent to Amazon. As things stand with our experiment now, that’s a trade-off we’re willing to live with.

Ready Player One

I finally got to reading “Ready Player One” over the last few days. It was a fascinating read – one for anyone who wants to geek out on some fun science fiction. I had two takeaways from the experience of reading the book.

The first was a quote from the creator of the virtual universe in the book – “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

It was a reminder on the importance of thinking through the second and third order effects of technology we build. Ready Player One is set in a dystopian post climate change, post virtual reality world. Humans spend most of their lives attached to their VR devices – an idea that can’t be dismissed as improbable given what we’re seeing with device addiction today.

The second was a nudge to read more fiction in 2019. I hope to make that happen. And, I’m also in the market for recommendations – so, if you have a favorite fiction work of fiction you’d recommend, I’d love to hear it (rohan at rohanrajiv dot com).

5 reflections on technology from 2018

5 reflections on technology from 2018 –

1. Tech has far outgrown tech. I recently came across the origin story of “ThirdLove.” Heidi Zak, a Marketing Manager at Google, was tired of wearing undergarments that didn’t fit. She was also tired of the sexed up images that came with brands like Victoria’s Secret. So, she started ThirdLove.com to build a more inclusive bra and underwear brand, has grown ThirdLove to 250+ employees, and raised $13.4M along the way. And, as ThirdLove is an e-commerce brand, ThirdLove is considered a “tech startup.”

I remember a discussion with Disqus co-founder Daniel Ha where he made the point that companies which were founded around the time electricity became mainstream called themselves “electric” companies (e.g. General Electric). Over time, however, every company began using electricity and, thus, electricity became a foundation layer.

When we refer to the “tech” industry, we refer to companies that are “internet first.” That is certainly the case with retail companies like ThirdLove and Warby Parker which were built with the internet in mind. It doesn’t mean they won’t have a physical footprint (Warby Parker does) – it just means they started with internet first assumptions. That means they focused first on selling direct to customers online with a low cost distribution model.

But, the new tech company is increasingly focused on the domain of “non tech” companies. As a result, Amazon may have an online retailer when it started. But, it now has a massive physical footprint. Scooter-as-a-service companies like Bird and Lime own scooters. OpenDoor owns homes and so on.

In the next decade, non-tech incumbents across industries will have to find a way to cross the chasm and build with “internet first” assumptions. Or, they’ll lose to an upstart who does.

2. Deep learning may have hit its limits – but its impact will be far reaching. The growing consensus among experts (e.g. Rodney BrooksGary Marcus) on deep learning is that we are fast approaching its limits. While that might be true, I think we are still ways from experiencing the impact of full deployment of deep learning in our everyday life. Putting aside the potential Orwellian applications of deep learning (see example of social credit in China), we are just beginning to see the effects of increased automation.

Amazon said the following in a statement about increased warehouse automation – “It’s a myth that automation replaces jobs and destroys net job growth. Automation increases productivity and in some cases increases consumer demand, which also creates more jobs. Automation makes the jobs in our fulfillment center more efficient and allows associates to redirect their focus to other tasks. Since the time we started introducing robotics at Amazon in 2012, we have added nearly 300,000 full-time jobs globally. Our teams work alongside more than 100,000 robots at over 26 fulfilment centers worldwide and we are excited to continue increasing the technology we use at our sites while growing our global workforce.”

Of course, it isn’t just Amazon. For starters, WalMart is testing cashier less Sam’s Club stores and will also be deploying robot janitors in its US stores. The story we’re told is similar to the one told by Amazon – don’t worry, automation only increases the size of the pie. While the story may actually be true for these companies, it is hard to escape the fact that these robots are reducing the overall number of jobs available for humans (see JD.com’s fully automated warehouses).

And, while we can all point to the many jobs we created since the industrial revolution, there is also the fact that there was a painful adjustment period.

Investing in continuous education and re-skilling the workforce should be on top of every political agenda. But…

3. …regulators are clearly skating to where the puck was 20 years ago. Sadly, we saw far too many examples of backwards looking politics and regulation this year. There were two examples of this just in the last week. The first involved a a poorly crafted piece of legislation in Australia that gives the government the right to break encryption for law enforcement reasons without any judicial oversight. And, the second was an exchange between Sundar Pichai and Congressman Smith where the latter claimed he believed individuals could manipulate Google Search results.

Regulators have been lining up to find ways to regulate digital advertising (see: GDPR) – sadly, however, they’ve been doing so in ways that only entrenches incumbents and their approaches to doing business. Ben Thompson had a great post called “Data factories” earlier this year sharing his notes on how we might approach regulating the internet. He explains that users care far less about their privacy than regulators believe. And, instead of enforcing onerous consent procedures, the better approach might be to mandate greater transparency on how user data is actually used. In Ben’s words –

Indeed, that is the crux of the matter: regulators need to trust users to take care of their own privacy, and enable them to do so — and, by extension, create the conditions for users to actually know what is going on with their data. And, if they decide they don’t care, so be it. The market will have spoken, an outcome that should be the regulator’s goal in the first place.

4. Climate change will be the toughest test we face as a species. If you haven’t seen the climate assessment prepared for the US Congress, this thread by Eric Holthaus is a must read. The one word description would be “grim.”

This is an area where we’re in urgent need of innovation. The challenge with combating climate change is that reducing emissions isn’t going to help. For starters, we need commercialized Carbon capture technology that will enable us to capture Carbon Dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.

For all these warnings, the response from most governments has been to do the equivalent of bury their head in the sand. That isn’t going to save them.. or us.

A few months back, The New York Times shared a touching essay by Roy Scranton where he shared the conflicts rife in bringing up a child in a world which seems doomed. He ends the essay by saying this –

Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time.

I can’t protect my daughter from the future and I can’t even promise her a better life. All I can do is teach her: teach her how to care, how to be kind and how to live within the limits of nature’s grace. I can teach her to be tough but resilient, adaptable and prudent, because she’s going to have to struggle for what she needs. But I also need to teach her to fight for what’s right, because none of us is in this alone. I need to teach her that all things die, even her and me and her mother and the world we know, but that coming to terms with this difficult truth is the beginning of wisdom.

5. Optimism matters. When I started writing Notes by Ada in March last year, I thought I’d be sharing notes about the the current state of technology. I imagined picking headlines from the week’s news and tying them together. But, the writing process is one of discovery and I learnt that my interests actually lay in the next few decades instead of the next few months.

As a result, I spent a lot more time than I expected learning about climate change as I realized that it is the most pressing technology problem that exists. I also spent time reading about the impact of deep learning on jobs because a lack of jobs means human discontent. Human discontent leads to populist, short term politics. And, any progress toward combating climate change loses with populist, short term politics.

The challenge with all this reading is that it is hard to stay optimistic. You realize very quickly that we’re ways off where we need to be.

But, after a brief period of wallowing in pessimism, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of optimism. There was an interesting note on this from John Arnold in Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors” – “Much of one’s attitude toward life depends on their level of optimism. An optimistic person will invest more in him- or herself, as the deferred reward is expected to be higher. “

There have been reasons to be optimistic. Electric vehicles are coming. They are going to spell the death of the internal combustion engine and remake industries. We are beginning to experiment with food production technology that will hopefully end animal farming. But, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Then, last month, a group of scientists from 60 countries came together to agree on a new definition for the kilogram. They agreed to migrate from a definition based on a hunk of Platinum Iridium to one based on the “Planck’s constant” – a value that will stay stable over time. Jon Pratt, one of the leading scientists, said something poignant – “It is an acknowledgment of an immutable truth — that nature has laws to which all of us are subject. And it’s one more step toward a lofty dream — that, in understanding nature’s laws, scientists can help build a better world.”

Witnessing this triumph of science, global cooperation and logical decision making brought a tear to my eye. 

We will need a lot more understanding of nature’s laws in the next decade, a lot more science, and a lot more cooperation in the coming decade.

As I look ahead into 2019, I hope to remain optimistic about our ability to do that.

The Amazon Empire And What Better Might Look Like

a16z Board Partner and former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky had a great post on Medium (originally a tweet storm) in which he shared an alternative view on Amazon’s journey. Instead of the usual narrative about world domination, he makes the case that this Amazon’s moves are Amazon just becoming a traditional retailing empire – like Sears, WalMart, et al.

For Amazon’s logistics mastery, think of Walmart in the 1980s. For the loyalty driven by Amazon Prime, think of the Sears store credit card. For Amazon Basics, look at house brands of nearly every retailer. And, for Amazon Advertising, look at the channel structure (rebates or discounts for shelf placements) of every retailer.

Again, it is a great post and is right on most counts.

That said, while all of this points to Amazon becoming a retailing behemoth just like those of the past, I think technology available today enables a behemoth of hitherto unprecedented size, scale, and strength.

The obvious counter point to all this would be to look at the past. Walmart’s dominance felt unbeatable – until it wasn’t. But, let me explain why I look at Amazon’s dominance differently.

(1) The online-offline combination at scale is formidable. Anyone who’s taken a class in Supply Chain will tell you that it is impossible to be both broad and efficient on one channel. Online distribution and centralized warehouses are great for expensive products with high demand uncertainty (TVs, diamonds). They suck for steady demand, low value products.

Put simply, Amazon’s online business is very efficient at shipping you books or CDs or even televisions – but is very inefficient at shipping diapers. So, it was only a matter of time before Amazon expanded into physical retail (3000 stores are on the way by 2021).

Omni-channel retailing makes the prospect of a profitable “Everything Store’ very real.

(2) 4 Stars is made possible by the retailer – Go is made possible by the technology giant. Amazon announced a new store called “4 stars” in New York City. The store will feature the most popular products bought by New Yorkers on Amazon. It makes complete sense and is something Amazon is well positioned to pull off. The challenge with physical stores is optimizing sales per sq foot. Here, Amazon will only sell the most popular items. Social proof works.

You can imagine other retailers with massive online footprints (there aren’t many – but you can still imagine it) pulling something like this off.

Amazon Go, however, is about more than that. Go brings together mastery in computer vision and deep learning that has been honed for years thanks to an ecosystem that features projects like Alexa and AWS. There isn’t another retailer on the planet who can pull this off. In fact, I’d wager that there are less than ten companies on the planet that have the talent required to do this. Amazon is part of a very elite group of technology leaders.

(3) In the race to build the OS for the home, Alexa is the one to beat. Amazon has been going after the home for a few years now. After a few failed experiments, the combination of Alexa and Echo have definitely been a home run. But, in typical Amazon fashion, they’ve sought to build on that. Whether it is attempting to get to know your wardrobe via the Echo Show, be your home security vendor via Ring (acquired), and the recent Alexa microwave, Amazon is the clear frontrunner.


Again, the technology chops required to make Alexa work rules out every retailer. We’re thus left with 3 other companies with working (to various degrees) personal assistants – Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Facebook could be added to the list and will likely give it a shot too.

Microsoft is (mostly) focused on the workplace and Apple’s DNA is decidedly not mass market retail. All this brings us to Google and maybe Facebook.

We can begin by ruling out Facebook’s chances. Ads is a problematic business model when you’re creating home devices with personal assistants that listen to people’s most intimate conversations. And, Facebook has repeatedly proved it will use any and all data available (including what you share for security purposes) to target ads. That’s not going to be helpful in their quest for the home.

That, then, brings us to Google. The biggest challenge Google faces is the same as that of Facebook – it is an advertising company. But, luckily for Google and in no part thanks to its many moon shots, it has a brand that stands for more than that – at least relative to Facebook. This is getting undone with the various recent revelations about excessive tracking. That said, I’d posit that they still have hope.

And, that hope is critical because securing a foothold in retail has existential implications for Google’s growth. Steven Sinofsky’s point about Amazon’s ad business being the equivalent of retailers charging for great shelf space indicates why this is so. Since retail searches in the past two decades have generally started on Google, Google has taken home that money. But, as Amazon becomes that default place to begin the retail journey, Google will lose out heavily on future growth.

So, unless Google does what all successful retailers do and builds a successful house brand (Google Shopping), it is going to lose a massive portion of the e-commerce pie. If Google is to succeed in this, I believe Google will need to draw a strong and visible separation between its ad monetization and Google Home. If people perceive a strong connection, they will not buy.

I stress “perceive” because Amazon has a rapidly growing ad business too. Customers, however, think of Amazon as a retailer first. And, perception matters.

(4) The internet has created global (i.e. world minus China) winner take all effects – especially for platforms. The internet has enabled global domination by a few corporations at an unprecedented scale. Steven Sinofsky’s post points to Walmart’s scale in the 80s and 90s. But, I’d argue that Amazon is different because it is both a retailer and a platform of retailers (Fulfillment by Amazon).

It means Amazon’s domination is not limited to its ambitions as a retailer. Just as Facebook is the global internet’s (again, global = world minus China) default town square, Amazon is the default market with merchants from all across town. That’s something Walmart or any major retailer in the past never had.

I think that is also why the narratives around retail and ridesharing seem to be running parallel. Just as we’re seeing massive global ridesharing networks consolidate into two opposing forces (Uber, Softbank, Didi, Grab vs. Lyft, Go-Jek, Waymo), retail pits Amazon versus Walmart, Google, and JD.com. The stakes are much higher compared to the 1980s and 90s.

(5) Amazon’s momentum can likely only be stopped by two forces – the government and itself. In sum, I think Steven Sinofsky is right in saying that a lot of what Amazon is doing isn’t as disruptive as is often portrayed. But, I do think equating Amazon to every other retail empire doesn’t do it justice. Its mastery of omni-channel retailing, access to cutting edge technologists who are building for Alexa and AWS, and its formidable platform chops make it really hard to beat.

As a result, I believe there are only two possible ways Amazon’s expansion will be stopped – regulation or poor strategy/execution on its part. As long as Jeff Bezos is around, my guess is that we’re effectively left with government/regulation as the only realistic option.

(6) I’m hopeful Amazon will help build out a better global retail empire. While they’re at it, I’m hopeful team Bezos will help build a better global retail empire in the coming decades. There’s benefits to massive consolidation and I’m hoping some of these benefits will be used for good.

3 areas where I’d love to see Amazon innovate –
1. Ethical global supply chains. We live in a world where everyone owns a smartphone – however, only a tiny minority of which are ethically built. Amazon’s heft means it can make ethical standards mandatory for its 3rd party retailers as well as its own supply chain. Amazon’s internal recruiting famously has “bar raisers” – folks who form part of the interview panel to ensure they’re raising standards. I’m hopeful they’ll raise the bar on supply chains too.

2. The Amazon recycling program. What if Amazon created  program to recycle its famous cardboard boxes?

What if, for example, this program recycled both boxes and goods purchased on Amazon?

3. More sustainable products. Building on the above two points, what if Amazon pushed for more sustainable products by making more of them available on Prime?

At Amazon’s scale, every step made toward sustainability will be a giant leap forward.

I’m well aware Amazon’s past record in these areas hasn’t been great. Their treatment of their warehouse employees has come under fire in the past. Better often makes margins worse and it is, after all, still day 1 at Amazon.

However, I’m hopeful there’ll come a time when Team Bezos reconciles the fact that it is also year 20 at Amazon. While they’ve (admirably) retained their scrappiness, they’re also among the most powerful corporations on the planet.

And, if responsibility is proportional to power, they certainly have a whole lot of it.

The World Cup, Google, And The Omnipresent Sorting Theory

France were crowned the new world football champions in the summer. Croatia were the runners up.

The interesting question, then – can we confidently say Croatia was the second best team in the tournament? Would they have beaten Belgium or Brazil if either team had been in their half of the bracket?

While it is likely to be just a battle of your opinion versus mine, I’d hazard a guess that Belgium and Brazil were probably better teams. The challenge is that elimination via brackets does a good job identifying the winner. But, it does a poor job of finding second place. The best approach to finding the stack rank of the teams would be to do a comprehensive round robin where everyone plays each other – equivalent to the English Premier League for example. But, we don’t have time for that in the world cup. So, brackets are the way to go.

Sorting theory
In Computer Science, a sorting algorithm puts the elements of a list in a certain order. Computers, in many ways, are just sorting machines. They take vasts amounts of data and find ways to sort them intelligently and make them available when we need them.

Sorting theory is a key part of introductory computer science and it tends to be a popular interview question topic. Barack Obama was famously asked a question about the most efficient sorting algorithms in an interview at Google. That’s how mainstream sorting questions are. :-)

The efficacy of sorting algorithms is judged by the big O notation. It is the worst case scenario of time taken to sort “n” items. The first sorting aglorithms had a worst case performance of N^2 square. This means the performance gets really bad as the number of items increases. As a result, sorting and, by extension, computation was very expensive.

This was until the Merge sort came along.

Merge sort and life applications of sorting theory
The merge sort has legendary status among sorting algorithms because it made “linearithmic” sorting possible. The worst case is NlogN – effectively MUCH faster than previous sorting algorithms. (Wikipedia has a simple illustration of how merge sort works – if you are interested)

Merge sort is what you do when you split a large pile of laundry, split it into little piles, sort those piles, and then merge them together. The process of elimination in competitions via brackets is, thus, a variant of merge sort.

As Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths share in their book “Algorithms to Live By,” there are plenty of other such life applications of sorting. For example, sorting theory teaches us to never sort email into folders if searching is easy. Sorting is expensive (read: giant waste of time).

Sorting theory also teaches us to use “bucket sort” when possible. Bucket sort or bin sort is what you do when you just separate your laundry into various “bins.” Assuming a small number of bins, it gets sorting done in linear time.

We also see sorting theory play out in every organization via the pecking order. Pecking order was first observed in a brood of chickens who figure out their leadership order by pecking away at each other. The most powerful peckers are higher up in the order. Humans do it too – it is called politics and usually just requires two humans, a room, and some incentives.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with technology and the future?
Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths have a couple of intriguing questions for us here – What is Google? The default answer would be “search engine.”  But, is it really a search engine? Or, should it be called a “sort engine?”

The power of Google is not just in the searching but in its ability to do the sorting. In fact, we could make the argument that it is the efficacy of their sorting algorithm that makes Google the massive money making machine that it is. Google rose to power sorting results into pages with 10 relevant results. Over time, they added ads to the side and then on top and became one of the most valuable companies on the planet.

Let’s take a look at what Google’s sorting looks like right now. These are screenshots as I scroll down for a search for “mattress” – I’ve captured 8 screenshots from beginning to end and I’ve encircled the ads in red.


3 observations –

1. It took me 2 entire screen scrolls before I saw the first completely organic result.

2. I counted roughly 16 organic results/groups and 7 ads.

3. I don’t think I ever scroll past screen 2 – my guess is that I’m not the exception here.

Google, then, is still a sort engine. For most retail searches, however, it just sorts more ads these days than organic results.

Who gets to do the sorting for you?
There are two lucrative marketplaces on the internet – attention marketplaces and retail marketplaces. The biggest leading indicator for the success of a marketplace is whether or not they do the sorting for you.

If Facebook gets to sort the information you see through the course of a day (and, for a majority of the world’s adults, they do), the attention marketplace is theirs. And, if Google gets to sort the results of your retail searches, then they win big as well.

Understanding this truth about sorting explains a lot about the state of the big technology players today. Facebook – including Instagram, Whatsapp, et al – sorts the information the world sees every day. But, they’re working hard to invest in video because they don’t want Netflix and YouTube to sort what you watch.

The New York Times homepage used to be the most prestigious display of sorting two decades ago. It isn’t anymore. Old world publishers are, thus, falling by the wayside. The smarter ones are realizing that the only place they can do the sorting of information for their users is email. So, they’re doubling down on email and building subscription businesses on that (quaint?) piece of technology.

Disney, 21st Century Fox, and the like don’t want Netflix to sort the shows you want to watch. They’re scrambling. So are large telcos who’re finding ways to get in on this action.

Google, on the other hand, is targeting a different kind of foe. Google makes a lot of money off retail searches. But, increasingly, people are starting their retail searches on Amazon. Worse still, they’re able to do so by just talking to Alexa. From a monetization standpoint, that is an existential threat for Google. Google’s $550M in Chinese retailer JD.com is just the tip of the iceberg for Google’s marketplace ambitions. Expect plenty more to follow.

One thing is for certain – In all these moves and the many more to come in the future, sorting will be omnipresent.

(Also posted elsewhere as part of the “Notes by Ada” Project)