The Medici Effect, the Jobs Crisis, and the WhatsApp Economy

It's a quiet spring morning in San Francisco - time for a quick update on my latest projects. Wherever you are, I hope winter is on the wane.

I had a fantastic spring break in Florence, Italy, where my parents were renting an apartment. It was a huge treat to spend eight straight days in the city of Leonardo and Michelangelo and to have time to explore corners of the city tourists don't usually get to see. I had the opportunity to walk the Vasari Corridor, meet with Paolo Galluzzi, the director of the Museo Galileo, and travel to Vinci, the hill town where Leonardo was born. You can check out the Flickr photoset from the trip here. Thanks Mom & Dad!

-- Inspired by the Florence trip, and especially the Hall of Maps in the Palazzo Vecchio, I wrote a column about the Medici effect in modern-day Silicon Valley. There's no Duomo in Mountain View, but the money being spread around by today's super-rich technology companies and their CEOs will have a big impact on the Bay Area, just as the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, supported so much art, architecture, and culture in the Florence of Vasari's day. A hat tip to my Seattle colleague Ben Romano for helping me think through some of these ideas.

-- But even as the riches pile up in places like Silicon Valley, it's clear that millions of people are being left behind by the technology boom. The middle-class jobs lost in the recession aren't coming back, and it's in large part because robotics, automation, and information technology are advancing faster than many workers can keep up. After attending the fantastic two-day Innovation for Jobs Summit organized by my friend David Nordfors, I wrote a sequel to the Florence column called The Missing Middle Class: Jobs in the Second Machine Age.

-- Facebook's acquisition of messaging startup WhatsApp for $19 billion in cash and stock is the best recent example of the way technology is shifting the balance of power and wealth toward high-skilled workers; WhatsApp has 450 million users and only 35 employees. The news inspired me to write a column about the unreal economy of Silicon Valley and the trap that a number like $19 billion could create for other tech entrepreneurs. But now I'm wondering if I got it wrong; maybe Silicon Valley is the real economy, and the fact that WhatsApp's perceived value exceeds that of 355 of the Fortune 500 companies is a sign of growing imbalances to come.

-- One of the big imbalances, at least here in the Bay Area, is in housing. The rent is too damn high, partly because there's more competition than ever for the limited supply of apartments. So I wrote about Zumper, maker of a mobile apartment-search app designed to make it easier for renters to browse available apartments and for landlords and brokers to sort through the flood of applications.

-- Turning from economics to design: It's been a pleasure getting to know Aaron Marcus, a Berkeley-based interface designer who's been thinking about how to make software more usable since the 1960s. I've been wanting to profile him for years, and in mid-February I finally got time to sit down and write something. The resulting piece lays out Marcus's philosophy about the importance of simple and consistent metaphors and models in interface design. Marcus also shares his concerns about the downsides of agile software development, and his thoughts about Apple's iOS 7.

-- "Where do you get your news?" is a different question from "where do you refresh your thinking?" In a Valentine's Day column I shared a list of the 15 publications I follow for deep analysis of the issues that really matter, like climate change, world health, food security, jobs and growth, and privacy and civil rights.

-- Speaking of privacy, I covered an Intel-sponsored study that asked whether Americans and people in other countries would want to live in cities where computerized sensors on highways and buildings are using data about their movements to save energy and reduce traffic congestion. Interestingly, people outside the U.S. want this kind of ubiquitous sensing technology as soon as they can get it. But inside the U.S. only 49 percent of people thought citywide data collection is a good idea, and 60 percent saw it as a potential privacy violation.

-- Traffic congestion could become a thing of the past if more people were able to park their meat bodies at home and work remotely. A Palo Alto company called Suitable Technologies wants to make that possible: it's selling a remote presence device called Beam that helps workers interact with colleagues in distant offices. Think of it as an iPad on a Segway, running two-way video a la Skype or FaceTime, with the remote worker using their keyboard to control where the device goes. I visited the company (in meat form) and came back convinced that technology-enabled remote work will be standard in many organizations.

-- Suitable's founder and CEO Scott Hassan will be part of a stellar lineup of speakers at our April 10 Robo Madness event at SRI International. If you're into robotics, you can check out the full agenda here and buy a ticket here.

-- From robotics to games: I did a followup profile of Kiip, a San Francisco startup that helps game developers and other app builders make money through reward offers tied to moments of achievement. Kiip got its start working exclusively with game developers, but now you'll see its rewards popping up in many other types of apps, including fitness, food, music, productivity, and sports. Do you use an alarm-clock app to wake you up in the morning? Quaker Oats may want to be there to reward you for not hitting the snooze button.

-- Mobile games have been around a lot longer than smartphones. In my February 28 column I wrote about Merlin, the handheld electronic game introduced by Parker Bros. in 1978, and interviewed its inventor, Bob Doyle. "The notion of the mind as a computer...has fascinated me my whole life," Doyle told me. With Merlin, he says, he felt he was "providing a kind of interaction with a form of artificial intelligence."

 

Wade Roush

10 Museum Way, Cambridge, MA, 02141, United States

Science and technology journalist based in San Francisco.