This week: wonderful country-trap, weird bacteria innovation, and Elon’s leaf-blower. 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.
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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. Let's start!
Sandra Today on the 100th episode: wonderful country trap, weird bacteria innovation and Elon's leaf blower. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
KaiI'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So Sandra, what happened in the future this week?
Sandra Well 100 episodes happened.
Kai All this week?
Sandra No and not exactly 100 episodes but pretty much 100 episodes since we first started doing The Future, This Week.
Kai Well if we discount all the trailers, then this is officially the 100th episode of The Future, This Week.
Kai That was Megan, all excited. We're still here. We survived.
Sandra We're still going! And we had to decide on what we do for the 100th episode. So after spending about an hour counting the episodes, and do we count trailers, do we not count trailers. And after deciding on whether we were going to do the best of, or our favourite stories, or our least favourite stories, or just normal stories from this week.
Kai We remembered that we often say "the weird and the wonderful" in our intro. So we thought...
Sandra Why not do that? The weird and the wonderful.
Kai So this week, rather than preparing stories together, Sandra and I each picked a weird and wonderful story that very much have to do with what we normally do on The Future, This Week but which are also slightly different. And I think your story should come first. So Sandra, tell me what's your story?
Sandra So let me ask you, have you heard of Old Town Road?
Kai Ahh, no.
Sandra And actually that's what I said the first time Andrea asked me that question.
Kai Andrea Myles?
Sandra Yep. We were having coffee. Andrea Myles is one of the members of our Board of Advice at the Business School here at the University of Sydney. And she's absolutely fantastic. She has lived for a very long time in China, she's become an expert in all things Chinese. And now she runs an award-winning, multi-million dollar startup that connects people and entrepreneurs and innovators from Australia and China. And she's one of Australia's 100 Most Influential Women for all the work that she's done in China. And she started telling me this story about Old Town Road.
Kai And that got you interested.
Sandra That got me very interested.
Kai So Old Town Road, what's that about? Is that Silk Road? It sounds country to me.
Sandra So it all starts in Atlanta, Georgia. With this guy called Lil Nas X, and Lil Nas X, in his bedroom, he's black, I think his girlfriend left him, I don't even know if that's true. Well thing is, he looks back at his life and goes 'y'know, I'm sad, I'm lonely, I'm in my apartment, my life's like a country song. So I'm gonna write meself a country song'. So that's what he sets about doing. He buys a beat.
Sandra And that's October of last year. He spends thirty dollars on this, and starts writing some lyrics. And the lyrics are exactly what you'd expect from a country boy in Atlanta, Georgia.
Audio MUSIC AND LYRICS
Sandra But Lil Nas X, he also a rapper, so there is a beat change in it. So he puts this up, much like we do every week, on Soundcloud, and at the same time he starts tweeting about it, but also makes it available on TikTok.
Kai So, TikTok for those of you who haven't listened to our recent episode about #ChinaTech with Barney Tan, we put it in the show notes. TikTok is a Chinese platform for recording and exchanging short videos, 15 seconds long. And it has come to popularity because it's got these weird challenges that people set each other. It's very much based around hashtags, and an algorithm that creates a feed of interesting things that are similar to what people are watching. And it's become a bit of a craze, especially among young people.
Sandra So Lil Nas X times this with a challenge on TikTok. And this challenge is called the 'yeehaw challenge'.
Kai Yeeeee haw.
Sandra And again, we'll put a link in the show notes with a yeehaw challenge on TikTok, so you can watch these people who for 15 seconds have a challenge of picking a country song that has a really good beat change, and changing their clothes when the beat changes. So imagine people in normal clothes, just hanging around, dancing around, and then the beat drops.
Audio MUSIC AND LYRICS.
Sandra And then suddenly they're in country clothing, dancing to country music.
Kai And there's thousands of these videos now, apparently.
Sandra And I've only spent a couple of hours looking at them last night will include them in the show notes if you want to go down the rabbit hole.
Kai So, what happens next?
Sandra So since this is available on TikTok for free, people start using it. It's absolutely perfect for the yeehaw challenge, it's 15 seconds.
Sandra Conveniently, with the beat change in it, and people start downloading, and downloading, and it's on Twitter. It's well timed with the yeehaw agenda in general, which is black artists getting into country music. And it goes viral, insanely viral. So much so, that because the Billboard charts now take into account streams on YouTube and platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify, it ends up charting in the Billboard country charts.
Kai So Lil Nas X, black guy from Atlanta, now charts in the Billboards.
Sandra By mid-March, it's one of the Hot Country Songs on the Billboard chart. In one week, it already makes it to number 19. And guess what, it makes it to the number one on the country charts. Even before Lil Nas X has signed with any record label, has made any record deals, it's up there at number one. And then it disappears. Dan dan dan daaaa.
Kai And so why?
Sandra Well quite unceremoniously, Billboard pulls it from the Billboard Hot Country Song chart, and it tells Rolling Stone magazine that while 'Old Town Road' incorporates some references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough of today's country music elements to chart in its current version. Now of course this move enrages the internet. It's picked up on Twitter, it's picked up on social media, and ignites a conversation about genre and about race on the Billboard country charts. Remember Lil Nas X.
Kai He black.
Sandra He black.
Kai But, that can't be all.
Sandra No it isn't, and let me tell you what happens here. Billy Ray Cyrus jumps into the mix. Of course, Billy Ray Cyrus...
Kai Father of Miley Cyrus...
Sandra And also country music royalty, jumps in on it. And actually tweets, and again we'll include all of this in the shownotes. "It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time. I was thinking 'what's not country about that? What's the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought it's honest, humble, it has an infectious hook and a banjo. What the hell more do you need?
Kai Well, turns out...
Sandra Turns out you actually need Billy Ray Cyrus. By the 5th of April, and this is only a few days before Lil Nas X's 20th birthday, he signs with Columbia Records and remixes the song.
Audio MUSIC AND LYRICS (WITH BILLY RAY CYRUS)
Sandra So as you can hear, this is pretty much exactly the same song, but now also featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
Kai Who is white.
Sandra So by the end of April, Lil Nas X tops the Billboard Hot 100 for a fourth week in a row, with Old Town Road, now featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
Kai Who makes it country.
Sandra And this is indeed how the story was mostly covered. So, I want to have a really quick look at how this has been covered in the news, and whilst we'll include one main story, as we usually do, from the Guardian, telling you the whole story of Little Nas X whose real name by the way is Montero Lamar Hill. Not that that matters, but you know, we thought you should know. This is first been covered by many, many outlets as a story ...
Kai Racism, basically in country, and the difficulty that black musicians have in breaking into the country charts. Only like 5 percent of songs in the top 100 billboard country charts are from black artists, whereas overall, black artists actually make up more than half of the charts in Billboard. So country is very much a white domain. And that's the main angle, right?
Sandra So that indeed has dominated a lot of the stories including on NPR, and on the Guardian with countries race problem, and in the New York Times. But there was another way in which this has been covered, which was a story about industry dissolution, about disruption of country music, and even more than that, of what the genre is. Traditionally we think of music in genre - country music, pop music, hip hop.
Kai But this song is 'country trap', something no one had heard of before.
Sandra So mixing and remixing of, but also, and Wired picked up this story, also a conversation about how genre, maybe like gender, is an increasingly outdated construct. That what we really have these days, is not genres, but moods. If you go on Spotify, or if you go on SoundCloud, quite often you don't pick a genre of music, but a mood that you want to listen to - chilled, relaxed, upbeat. Or a time that you wanna listen to - barbecue music, or road tripping music, rather than genres. But there is a third angle that we need to highlight before we can move to the weird and wonderful of this story, which was that this song, while it might sound like a fluke, like a thing that just rode the waves, was actually a well thought out move by Lil Nas X who...
Kai Pretty well understands how social media works, and lives in that world.
Sandra He's been active on Twitter for years and years, and was very familiar with how to construct or to game something going viral on Twitter. So he's been engaging in activities called 'tweetdecking', where people with lots of followers get together and create, gain virality by retweeting certain tweets, and making them rise to the top of the most shared content on Twitter. Many of these accounts by the way have been suspended by Twitter for violating spam policies and so on, and Lil Nas X no longer engages in that. But when talking to NPR, he talked about how he knew that the lines that he wanted to write for this song, he wanted them to be quite memeable.
Kai So memeability, you know I'm not sure that this is a word, but let's roll with it because it's exactly what he seems to have done, right. So he engineered this song to be used on various social media platforms.
Sandra Yep. So he talks about how "I got horses in the back", it was gonna be a meme. And then "the cowboy hat from Gucci, "Wrangler on my booty", "riding a horse, you can whip your Porsche", and so on. And he says "these are all very quotable. I was doing that the entire month of making the song: 'put this right here'. 'Oh it's gonna be the best plan ever'. And he says, “and you know, it worked".
Kai And I'm sure it is no coincidence that the little clip with the beat change is exactly 15 seconds, which is the TikTok length for sharing videos.
Sandra Yep. So what put this at the confluence of a number of trends that are really technology trends? The way meme spread on Twitter, the way challenges work on TikTok. But interestingly, and this is where I wanted to land with this weird and wonderful story, which is one of my favourite ones for this year I must say, so thank you Andrea. Is that no one really highlighted the angle of what TikTok did for this. So the reason it rose to the top of the Billboard charts, was the fact that it had been downloaded millions and millions of times. And this was enabled, to a large extent, by a...
Kai Large Chinese social media platform.
Sandra As we discussed in our previous podcast about TikTok, not many people know about it, or if they do, not many people know it's a Chinese tech giant.
Kai So this is really a weird and wonderful story where different worlds collide. The world of black music and rap, the white-dominated country charts, and an emerging Chinese Internet platform, which for all intents and purposes will not be very well-known among the traditional US country listeners, who had such an influence in pretty much washing this song up the Billboard charts.
Sandra So thinking about disruption in the country music industry, it becomes fascinating to consider the number of digital trends that have to come together for this sort of story to emerge.
Kai TikTok, memeing on Twitter, downloading from YouTube, the fact that streaming now plays a role in the Billboard charts. And also, platforms such as Soundcloud which allow everyone to promote their own music and to feature as self-promoting artists.
Sandra And this is again, not to take away from the quality or the catchiness of Old Town Road. It's definitely, even that less than two minutes, that's how long the song is. It's definitely one that you can listen to over and over again, and it's got a good beat and a good sound. Yet it was made famous by teenagers in clips where they all just miraculously transform into cowboys after drinking some mystical yeehaw juice.
Kai So this is a pretty unusual disruption story. But it also highlights a deep truth in disruption as a phenomenon, and we've covered this previously on the podcast, which is: disruptions often emerge, they are weird, they come from the fringes. They are often the result of many converging trends. Think about the music industry and the digital disruption there. It had to have the internet emerging, and MP3 as a standard, and CD burners that allow people to rip music, and then the iPod, and the iPhone, and screens, and so all of these things coming together in disrupting this industry. And we have another story here where a lot of these unpredictable things have to coalesce to actually bring about this phenomenon. And that is not to take away from the agency of single actors, Lil Nas X certainly did his bit in doing this, but he was by no means really in charge of this trend because he had to rely on hundreds of thousands of people on TikTok, actually picking up the song and doing these challenges. So, to me this is really fascinating.
Sandra And of course it also has horses, which were in the first podcast we ever did. We talked about the 'great horse manure crisis' of 1894.
Kai And you know what?
Sandra We'll put it in the shownotes.
Kai Yeah, and you know what else? My story got horses too.
Sandra Tell us about your story.
Kai Okay. So, my story is a story about horses and dirt and shit and soil and bacteria, obsession, innovation, world views, money. The history of an idea, and the future of an industry, and ultimately it is also about business with China again. So before I start telling you this weird story that I came across just a couple of days ago, let me begin by saying this was published in Bloomberg Businessweek. I'm just saying this because the story is rather obscure and weird, so let me put it out there that this is not from some really obscure magazine. So this story is also set in the US. It features David Whitlock who is not 19, but 64. And he couldn't be more different to Lil Nas X. Because David Whitlock is an engineer and inventor you could say. And he's described in the article as going bald, wearing standard-rimmed glasses, wearing used jeans, flannel shirts, hiking boots, and drinking coffee from a mug that hasn't been washed in about 20 years. And David is also severely autistic, and quite aware of it, and flippant about it. And that sort of plays some part in this story. So the story begins in the year 2000, when David had a schoolteacher friend, and she asked him one day why her horse would roll in the dirt even though it was still in the cool springtime and insects weren't actually biting the horse. So, you know, her assumption being they roll around to get rid of the insects. And because he kind of was fond of his friend, he tried to find an answer. And he really got obsessed about figuring out, you know, what those horses were doing. So he tried to find an answer, and started to dig deeper and do his research. And it's worth knowing here that he's got two degrees, bachelor's and Master's in Chemical Engineering from MIT. So this is his background. He used to have a career in the cement industry, and together with his business partner Walter 'Hilly' Thompson, he actually patented an environmentally friendly way of producing cement, and they sold their company. So he's got this background in chemistry, and so he starts isolating bacteria from the soil that those horses would roll around in. And what he found fascinated him. He found a type of bacteria that actually derives energy from ammonia rather than organic matter. Meaning that they can feed on sweat. And so he came up with this idea that, 'Hey! maybe those bacteria could be useful in humans too'. And this is where this story all takes a quite a weird turn.
Sandra Tell me he doesn't roll around in shit.
Kai Well, he does something like that. So what he did is he isolated this type of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria or AOB, (that will become important in the story) and read up on it. And it turns out that those bacteria are quite useful. They convert ammonia into nitrate which have anti-infective properties, so actually help the skin. and nitric oxide which science magazine actually declared molecule of the year in 1992. And quoting here, "It helps maintain blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, helps kill foreign invaders in the immune response, is a major biochemical mediator of penile erections". I do not kid you, this is from Science magazine, "and is probably a major biochemical component of long term memory". That's the magazine's editor at the time. And in 1998 three Americans actually won the Nobel prize for this discovery.
Sandra So what does David to do with this?
Kai So David starts obsessing about this, and he extracts a particular AOB (ammonia-oxidizing bacteria) called Nitrosomonas eutrophia, which he describes as relatively athletic, meaning it has good qualities. He builds a makeshift tank from an old aquarium and starts self-experimenting. So he basically uses this bacteria and smears it on his skin. He stops showering. Turns out this stuff is pretty miraculous because he develops no body odour, no body smell, and it's gross, right?
Sandra It is absolutely gross.
Kai Yes, but this is in Bloomberg Businessweek, right. I reminded you at the beginning.
Sandra That doesn't make it any less gross.
Kai Well, we're going places with this. He obsesses so much that he starts spending all his money on patent applications, to the point where, in 2009, he sells his apartment and he moves into his white Dodge Grand Caravan, where he, you know...
Sandra Doesn't have to shower, 'cause he's got the bacteria.
Kai No, no. Exactly. So he lives out of his car, parks in the parking lot of his old employer, the cement company where he still has an office, and really goes down the rabbit hole. Now, turns out, David has good friends. So first of all Walter 'Hilly' Thompson spends $600 000 of his own money and then starts raising money for his friend, and a first investor comes on board. Jamie Heywood's who is the co-founder of PatientsLikeMe, an online info-sharing network who David gifted a tinfoil-wrapped bottle with his elixir three years ago, and he basically used it on himself as well and grew really fond of the product. So long story short, this weird story about this guy experimenting with horse poop and bacteria coincides with a development that happens in the wider world, which is an increased interest in what is called the human microbiome. So in parallel, a whole research stream evolves which takes an interest in how our body is actually inhabited by a lot of so-called 'good bacteria'. And so there's increasing interest in the microbiome, not only from the research side, but also in Silicon Valley. So the funding for companies engaged in microbiome research and product development has grown from about 170 million dollars in 2015, to over a billion dollars quite recently. So David's weird self-experimentation coincides with this emerging trend. Jamie Heywood, who raised the initial 1.4 million dollars of funding for David's ideas has him founding a company called AOBiome. So AOB, AOBiome, and with this company they start rigorous testing. And it turns out that one of their first products is a spray that basically can be used to cultivate these bacteria on human skin, instead of using deodorant or soap. And it so happens that one of the subjects in the initial trial is a writer for The New York Times, who writes an article for New York Times Magazine, which leads to a lot of inquiries from prospective customers, and the company launching a cosmetic brand called Mother Dirt. Now it all evolves from there, the company starts outsourcing its bacteria farming to India. Records its first profit, and is now a 100 million dollar startup. All of this happens at the same time as the industry, more widely, starts taking an interest. And this is important, because we're talking about an industry now that for all intents and purposes has spent the last 20 years propagating the ideas that bacteria are bad. We're talking about companies who are in the business of selling antibacterial soap, and dispensers, and hand wash.
Sandra And killing 99.9 percent of the germs.
Kai Absolutely. But at the same time, there is now this undercurrent of development in Silicon Valley from inventors, from David's company, that basically propagate the opposite view. That rather than killing bacteria on human skin, and also in the human body more broadly, could actually be the wrong approach. That rather than killing bacteria, we need to distinguish good and bad, and then start cultivating bacteria and working in restoring the human microbiome. Because research has shown, for example, that people in Western societies only have about half the diversity of bacteria in the body that, you know, native tribes for example would have. And so now we have this counter-movement which actually are pro-bacterial in a world where every one of us has been educated that bacteria are the bad guys, right, we talk antibiotics, we talk handwash. And so AOBiome therapeutics, the company that David founded, is now engaged in six clinical trials to treat a wide range of conditions such as acne, eczema, rosacea, hayfever, hypertension and migraines. And it has raised its profile to the extent that it's recently been injected, pun intended, with a lot of funding from Beijing Genomics Institute, and its founder by the name of Jun Wang is now AOBiomes Chairman. And Wang says "We are thinking about how to do gold-mining in the bacteria world".
Audio MUSIC AND LYRICS of Old Town Road
Kai Okay, okay, okay, I get it, I get it. I'm done, actually. So let's talk about this.
Sandra To me, while both these story sound like there is one big genius, Lil Nas X or David Whitlock, actually underneath is a much more complex story of a confluence of digital trends, research trends, and even cultural trends, that had to change or had to come together for these two to be able to disrupt well-established industries and well-established ways of doing things.
Kai Absolutely. I mean the point is there could be many David Whitlocks out there who, you know, do self-experimentation of some sort at the fringes of society. And many of which, we will never hear from. But here's someone who followed this idea, and then what he was doing converged with where broader society, or this emerging industry was going.
Sandra And same with Lil Nas X, who actually rode the number of these trends, viral tweets, TikTok challenges, to then come to challenge a well-established industry, and a well-established way of thinking about that, such as the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Kai And in this case here, the interesting thing is that there might actually be quite a profound disruption underway. A lot of the big well-known companies in this industry such as Unilever, BASF, or SC Johnson, they're all engaged with this industry now in quite a sort of culvert and sly way by investing in start-ups buying start-ups or experimenting not in an open way because they're brands very much still depend on the dominant narrative of bacteria killing much like our conversation about the Chicken of Tomorrow and the established meat companies buying into the clean meat lab meat industry. Exactly hedging their bets not wanting to be caught out by an emerging disruption. But it also shows that quite often new ideas by their very nature have to come from the very fringes of the industry or of a particular field. Little Nasdaq's had no ties to the country music industry and neither did David Whitlock have anything to do with pharmaceuticals or the beauty health industry. He was basically coming from the construction industry.
Sandra To me it's also about how we think about disruption and innovation. We're very used to analysing industries, and dynamics in those industries, in certain ways. So surprisingly things like TikTok, and the Yeehaw challenge and the role that maybe Chinese tech companies would play in the Lil Nas X story really flew under the radar, yet it was integral to the way that story developed. So the usual ways in which we think about problems or the categories that we use to analyse disruption in this industry is might themselves be challenged.
Kai And finally, and that's actually what we've done on the podcast, when we look back on these stories we often pick out 'the lone inventor', we tell it as a human interest story. We assign a lot of agency to a Lil Nas X or David Whitlock, and we make these hero stories. When in fact, so many different things have to converge, coincidences have to happen, serendipitous discoveries - a schoolteacher being interested in why her horses would roll around, a bored rapper who is good on social media, on a whim starting off creating this song - a lot of these things are obviously not intentional, but they tend to converge to a perfect storm that then brings about disruption.
Sandra And we intend to look at these sorts of stories for the next hundred episodes of The Future, This Week. But we couldn't leave this anniversary episode without returning to one of our classics. It's a Musk.
Kai It's a Musk. Elon Musk has been in the media again.
Sandra A fair bit. Among other things, and this comes from CNET, "Elon Musk says Tesla will make a leaf blower for some reason".
Kai What do you do when you're an inventor who has at his disposal a whole engineering team?
Sandra You take to Twitter on a fine April morning and you say that Tesla is going to develop a quiet electric leaf blower, and then you throw tons of cash and young engineers at the problem, and try to fix whatever annoyed you that morning. You know if it's traffic, then you'll build a tunnel and you just start digging. No idea why you'd build a flamethrower, but...
Kai Well you know, and before we all fly to Mars, let's say thank you everyone for sticking with us for 100 episodes. If you want your friends, your family, your colleagues to learn about the podcast please...
Sandra Like us, share, reshare, leave us a comment on any of the major podcasting platforms. Or come see us live at Vivid this year. Vivid Sydney, Vivid Sydney Ideas on Friday night, June 7th for Love/Machine...
Kai How digital humans change our lives.
Sandra We'll be on stage with our colleague Mike Seymour...
Kai Michela Ledwidge...
Sandra And Hao Li is joining us from USC to discuss the latest and greatest in digital human technology, and how it will impact our lives.
Kai And so this is all we have time for today. See you soon.
Sandra On the Future.
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.
Kai 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 was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter, or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to email@example.com.
Kai So Sandra, what happened in the future this week?
Sandra I had it. I swear I did. I had an angle.
Kai That's your Easter egg.