This week: sweet dreams, lots of streams, and the end of the world. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
We should think very seriously about what a bed is today
Internet consumption outpaces traditional TV in China
7 futurists on what they think will kill off humanity and 7 books on the topics
Other stories we bring up
How sleep became a billion-dollar business
You’re about to drown in streaming subscriptions
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Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world.
Okay let's start.
Sandra: Today on the future this week: sweet dreams, lots of streams and the end of the world. I'm Sandra Peter. I'm the director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at Sydney Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, I notice you're not here in the studio. Where are you?
Kai: Oh, I'm in Germany. I'm in my hotel room sitting on my hotel bed. I'm here in Germany for a workshop and it is actually early in the morning. Just before breakfast. So, let me ask you what happened in the future this week.
Sandra: Because I'm actually in the future. It's the afternoon here. I can actually answer that. First story that we have for today is about beds. It comes from Dezeen and it's a story titled "We should think very seriously about what a bed is today". The story is looking at exploring the role of the bed in how we design cities for the future. It comes from a professor at Princeton University who got interested in how we use beds these days, and how modern technologies have actually changed the role and the place the beds have in our lives.
Kai: It comes off the back of an article in The Wall Street Journal where 80 percent of young professionals, millennials, said that they do work from their beds. Which points to broader changes in how work, is done and how it actually affects our sleep and how we use our bed. So, she points out that more and more work is done across time zones. So the idea of uninterrupted 8 hours sleep doesn't actually work when you have to get up in the middle of the night for a phone conference. But the article also points out that the idea of the eight-hour sleep is very much one that came up in the industrial age and that people in earlier times wouldn't necessarily sleep the entire night. They would get up in the middle of the night to do some work because it turned out that they could actually be quite productive. And given that I am severely jetlagged here in Germany I had that experience just last night. I woke up after four hours of sleep in the middle of the night. I did an hour of work until I was a bit tired again and then I went to happily back bed. And so, since I am doing work from my bed this morning it seems quite interesting to discuss this story.
Sandra: And you're right, the article in The Wall Street Journal says that you're actually not alone. That about one in five employees in the UK now spend two to ten hours a week working from their beds. Another survey that they report on from California, saying that most people read or respond to work emails from bed. And there seems to be this entire generation that grew up on mobile phones and laptops and mobile devices that is increasingly accustomed to using them at any time of the day or night, and actually doing quite a bit of that work from bed. And this is the point where normally people would start raising questions about the work life balance and saying well this is terrible, that bed should only be used for very specific activities like sleeping. And anything outside of that actually is detrimental to our health. But as you well pointed out it didn't always used to be this way. So in medieval times people used to sleep in stages and work in the middle of the night. But what's more than that, before industrialisation there wasn't a clear demarcation between our working lives and our private lives. So people who had a certain role in society like being a butcher or a baker didn't that as work but saw just as part of their lives, as part of who they are. So it never came down to a balance between work and life because both were part of who you were. But since industrialisation we implemented the eight hours of sleep schedule, and the really clear demarcation between rest and work. And hence a lot of the questions that we have today really hark back to that period when we have decided that this is the new normal.
Kai: But on the other hand the way in which people increasingly take home their work and respond to emails in bed or do work in bed, for example even students doing homework and doing schoolwork in bed. There is increasing concern that it affects the way in which people can get to sleep. That they don't get enough sleep, but also that they have problems falling asleep. And so the article goes on to bring in the idea of a technology here. On the one hand technology as the enemy of a good night's sleep. The way in which we tend to binge watch Netflix a lot, the way in which blue light screens from devices is too stimulating for us to go to sleep, and obviously device manufacturers have addressed that. Smartphones now recognise what time of day it is and then switch to a more yellow light in order to not affect our sleep patterns. And so sleep has now become not only a high-tech business but also a billion-dollar industry.
Sandra: Indeed according to McKinsey, the sleep health industry is worth 30 to 40 billion dollars. With about an eight percent growth, which makes it a really, really big business.
Kai: So these numbers are from another article in The Guardian that was published back in April, which we will put in the shownotes, which talks about the way in which entire industries are now revolving around helping people with the perfect sleep. So on the one hand mattresses have become a high-tech business now. There are a number of start-ups that claim that they can revolutionise sleep by reinventing the idea of the mattress.
Sandra: So in another article on the science of sleep, it seems a whole host of athletes are now being sponsored by mattress companies. Where this sleep has become an integral part not only of a good day of work but also of success in pretty much any field now. Recovery and sleep have become the critical and the defining factor. And beds of mattresses have also become the gateway for the entire sleep science industry, and to bring about a whole hosts of other sleep devices. Not just the Fitbits and the smartwatches but also smart alarms, smart beds, recovery pyjamas, smart lights that will wake you up slowly. All of them allowing you to get the best sleep possible.
Kai: So sleep has very much been sucked into the phenomenon of self-optimisation, increased productivity and the way in which technology will enable us to become our best selves. And a good night's sleep has become an important measure. And the article even calls it an obligation these days where on the one hand there is this cult of what's called manly wakefulness, the idea that we work long hours, we are very productive. You know, the idea of the Silicon Valley professional who works a lot and puts everything on the line to make the business successful. Which is then contrast that with the necessity to then immediately have a good night's sleep so that in the morning productivity can be at its best again. And the Guardian article points out that this is creating a lot of stress in people's lives which not surprisingly affects the way in which we sleep.
Sandra: And I think this is a very important point we want to highlight. Because this entire sleep industry, whether its Fitbit or alarms or smart mattresses and pretty much everything else, is trying to fix the way we sleep and help us get that recommend eight hours of sleep every night. Which by the way is really important. But what the article really points out is that this might be a moment where we want to actually reconsider what a bed is today, and rethink everything from horizontal architecture to the role it plays in our lives. Because technology has entered our lives to such an extent that it might not be about going back to a previous state of affairs, but really rethinking what beds are.
Kai: And what counts as a good night's sleep, and how we actually establish whether we do sleep well. And the Guardian article points to an interesting phenomenon. It quotes Dr Sabra Abbott, a professor of neurology and sleep medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who has coined a new term which she calls orthosomnia. Which is a phenomenon that perfectly healthy people with good sleep start obsessing about their sleep. So she says she's increasingly seeing patients who didn't necessarily initially have sleep complaints. Their primary concern was that their tracker was telling them that they weren't getting the right amount or the right type of sleep. It seemed, she says, that the device was creating a sleep problem that may not have otherwise been there. In other words people are starting obsessing about getting the best sleep possible which leads ironically to not sleeping well at all. So it points to a bigger issue here which is that we seem to be objectifying and generalising something that might actually be quite a subjective and personal experience. And so the eight hour sleep as a model for the industrialised society which was important at the time much like nine to five regular hours discipline and all of the kind of things that were necessary to organise an industrialised society might not actually be the best model on which to decide what is good sleep, what at bed for, and how work should be done.
Sandra: What the bed is, and indeed sleep, seems to be a really interesting topic that we haven't yet covered on the podcast. But it's a topic that I'm sure we'll come back to because, a - sometimes the very mundane things are very interesting; and b - sometimes we get enthralled with how things are changing or being disrupted in our workplaces or with our technologies, but we don't think about the very simple things like sleeping.
Kai: So from sleeping and dreaming to streaming. Our second story comes from Variety. And it concerns the way in which television is changing. This one comes from China. It's titled "Internet consumption outpaces traditional TV in China".
Sandra: So indeed a very interesting insight. We've spoken about traditional media versus new media in the context of China before. We had a look in a previous podcast at how China has pretty much jumped over the email. era and has gone straight to mobile apps and mobile messaging, and e-mail addresses really don't make a lot of sense in China. And it's now time for the TV industry. High speed internet has continued to roll out across China over the past few years. 5G is about to further transform access to the internet. And hence internet streaming has been on the rise. And the article reports on a mid-year report in China that states that the total number of users has gone up seventy-six point four billion. That's a 56 percent increase from the first six months of last year and 300 percent increase from the same period in 2016. And this is a huge rise with mobile content streaming now outpacing traditional content in China. The most popular genres are reported to be things like period dramas and romance and stories of court rivalries. And they are not about to go anywhere soon. Another PWC report is saying that China's streaming sector will see growth twice the rate of traditional television and home video.
Kai: And this is very much mirrored in the west. So Wired magazine this week reports on the popularity of streaming services. It points out that the landscape is changing quite dramatically, which might bring a whole new set of problems. The article is titled "You're about to drown in streaming subscriptions". And it points out that the good old days of getting your media in the one place on television or with a cable subscription are very much gone. Which has left us with an increasing fragmentation of the market as not just Netflix in the US. There's HBO Now, there’s also Amazon Prime, there's Warner, Disney, Hulu, now Apple and there's a whole bunch of smaller niche streaming services. All of which offer a back catalogue of existing titles and increasingly producing original content.
Sandra: The first apparent problem here is that consumers will increasingly need to know where to go, because a lot of these series are only released now either on Netflix or on Amazon. The article reporting on China has the same story seeing that over 50 percent of the titles released last year were released only on a specific streaming service. So you had to go there to see this, but this seems to be a market that is still trying to resolve who the major players are. And this is not the first time we've really seen this. In the way this is somewhat similar to what happened in the 1980s with cable. In that we had this fragmentation between the different cable companies. But there is another industry that saw a very similar moment about 15 years ago.
Kai: In the music industry with the advent of MP 3, the first MP3 players and the increasing digitisation of music. Labels started to look for ways to monetise digital music and they launched their own online stores. And for a little while it seemed like consumers would have to educate themselves to know where a particular artist was signed, or which label would publish their music in order to know where to go and find the particular album that someone was looking for. And it was only after iTunes was able to convince the labels to list all of their offerings in the one catalogue and subsequently other players copying the model and also offering the entire music catalogue that this problem was solved. And nowadays you can just sign up for a streaming service or go to an online store and find the entire repertoire of music that we're looking for. And there's only very few artists or very few albums that are not available. This situation is very different in the video and TV industry at this point in time.
Sandra: Exactly. So we're seeing companies like Warner or Disney or HBO that really do not share their content with other streaming services. So much like in the 70s or 80s where you pretty much had to know what channel your show was on, you now need to know which one of the streaming services has the content that you want to watch. So if it's Game of Thrones you do need to go to HBO. And if you want to watch Orange Is The New Black, you have to go to Netflix.
Kai: So it doesn't look like we are resolving this problem in the video streaming industry any time soon. There are far too many players who are investing far too much money into original content, so they're not likely to agree to list everything in the one place. So the game will have to be played out in the long term. Potentially with some concentration, some mergers and acquisitions. But for the time being complexity in streaming will go up and customers will get used to forking over multiple fees for subscriptions to streaming services. Or- miss out on certain content.
Sandra: And this is where I think the article makes a very interesting point. In the fact that this fragmentation of streaming services that we're seeing also threatens our ability to have shared cultural conversations. So the article reflects on the fact that when we all used to watch the same shows on the same channels there was a bit of a cultural touchstone, in that we have all seen the same thing we could all identify with the same narratives. But right now we're all watching very different services and indeed at different times. Hence that share cultural conversation is much more difficult to bring about.
Kai: And so diversity in streaming services brings out new ideas, new original content and some really interesting developments that we wouldn't have had without this innovation that companies like Netflix are bringing. The complexity that it brings for the customer might not be great, but it is also not the end of the world.
Sandra: And speaking of the end of the world, our very quick last story comes from Business Insider. And it highlights seven futurists and what they think will kill off humanity. The seven books that talk about the end of the world.
Kai: This was content that was actually sponsored by the book company Blinkest. And it does something interesting. It goes and asks seven futurists what they think might hypothetically kill off humanity in the usually distant future, and then it pairs that with a particular - often science fiction - book that highlights the kind of issues being talked about. And we found this interesting because it gives us yet another glimpse at what are the technology topics that everyone talks about. Because a lot of the ways in which humanity is supposedly being killed directly related to the technology trends of today.
Sandra: So to quickly go through them Mike Walsh reckons it's going to be an attack on the networks that are essential to our survival. That includes weaponised viruses or gene edited vectors that target our food or water supplies.
Kai: And it's inspired by the observation that humanity is increasingly connected. We live in a global society which comes with certain vulnerabilities. So the idea here is that a viral pandemic might be a likely candidate for either wiping out or severely decimating humanity.
Sandra: This is echoed by other people on the list. Garry Golden, for instance, thinks a likely scenario is a biological contagion, natural or human created, that will decimate the entire populated areas.
Kai: Further candidates are the collision with an asteroid which might set off yet another mass extinction event much like the one that killed off the dinosaurs. Humanity destroying its own habitat with climate change and environmental disasters. Monocultures, and the fact that we might increasingly not be able to feed a growing population.
Sandra: Surprisingly this is only one mention out of the seven ideas that are listed.
Kai: Interestingly three of the entries go straight to modern information technology. Rohit Talwar, a global futurist, talks about the fear of a super intelligence. That is the topic that we have discussed many times. We have called bullshit on this narrative a number of times. Here again, Ray Kurzweil makes an appearance with the argument that, you know, if you continue working on AI, computers will outsmart us and then they will come for us. So a very familiar narrative to listeners of The Future, This Week.
Sandra: Or they will at least rise up and enslave us. If not kill us off altogether which is the other entry on our very short list.
Kai: But the most interesting technology related entry comes from Nova Spivack, who is the CEO of a company called Bottlenose, who has worked with DARPA, also on artificial intelligence. But he makes the argument that it is more likely that humanity itself will through genetic engineering make the species of homo sapiens obsolete by creating a new species that he calls homo geonomic. The fact that increasingly he thinks we will use technology gene editing, genetic engineering, to optimise and therefore create new species that was supersede humanity as we know it. So not an extinction but the creation of humanity 2.0. We don't know where things are going but there certainly more and more speculation. Technologies emerging that even in the near future will allow to technologically enhance the human body. Not only to fight disease or disability but also to "improve" in inverted commas humanity which raises a whole slew of new ethical and moral questions of course.
Sandra: So at this point the question is why bring up this article. And we thought it was interesting for two reasons. One is that all of the end of the world scenarios seemed to be completely dominated by technology. Apart from one entry that looked at our impact on the resources that we have available to feed ourselves or to sustain life on this planet. All of the other ones in whether there were manmade viruses or manmade super intelligent robots, they all refer to the impact that technology would have on us.
Kai: Don't forget the asteroid. But apart from that it's absolutely it's all about tech and the influence on humanity, and the dystopian ideas that we might take it too far and kill ourselves.
Sandra: The interesting thing for me was also the fact that one of the biggest possible end of the world scenarios that we had with us for the past 70 years has not made any appearance on this list.
Kai: This is of course nuclear annihilation. Again a technology related scenario, which is what makes this article so interesting. The fact that not only has our technological narrative evolved, but also our dystopian ideas about what might ultimately lead to the end of all of this has changed with it.
Sandra: So before he died, Professor Stephen Hawking talked about nuclear war as still possibly being the greatest threat to humanity. Because let's remember now it's no longer just Russia and the United States that have access to nuclear weapons but a whole host of other countries as well. The increasing risk that individuals or groups of individuals will get access to nuclear weapons and this risk increases every year. The more people have access to weapons that we already - have it is not something that we need to build or discover like super intelligence. Yet this is something that we no longer talk about.
Kai: Yeah, and I find it much more likely that we will kill ourselves with too little than too much intelligence. It is stupidity in the end that will probably decide our demise more than a too much of intelligence.
Sandra: On this cheery note, we do hope to be back in the studio next week. If not, it was a pleasure being with you until the end of the world.
Kai: And I should be back in Sydney if it still exists. Thanks for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week. Made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak.
You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you got your podcast. You can follow us online at Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.