Thinking lazily about inequality and freemium models






We had lunch at Le Cafe des Chats in the Marais a few days ago. My youngest daughter is a confirmed card-carrying ailurophile. And a delightful time was had by all. [By the way. Le Marais. Means roughly the same thing as Slough.  Life can be so unfair.]

We’d chosen a hotel, Jules et Jim in the 3rd arrondissement, located such that we could walk to most of the places we wanted to visit. Which meant that we could also have a meal at Derriere. There I sampled the finest carrot-based dish I’d ever had the privilege of being served. Julienned carrots, in coats of many colours. Some olive oil, lemon juice, fresh coriander, salt. All lightly sautéed. Heaven.


A glorious weekend. Lovely people, delightful conversations, meals to die for. Over one of those meals, the conversation meandered on to the cost of living. People at the table felt that London was far more expensive than Paris, based strictly on two criteria. Housing. Transport.

That was in the back of my mind when I was reading an article in the Economist headlined Land-shackled economies: The Paradox of Soil. Well worth a read; and if you have the time, also read Urban Land: Space and The City, in the same issue.

As the article notes, people like Thomas Piketty have already remarked on the role played by housing wealth in the growth of inequality; many of the diagrams in the Economist article are taken from Piketty’s work, Capital in the 21st Century. It also refers to the paper by Matthew Rognlie (of MIT) on Piketty and diminishing returns to capital. Also worth a read.

One particular paragraph in the Economist briefing captured my attention disproportionately:

But that process is now breaking down in many economies. For workers to move to the high wages on offer in San Francisco, they must win an auction for a home that provides access to the local labour market. The bidding in that auction pushes up housing costs until there are just enough workers interested in moving in to fill the available housing space. Salaries that should be sending come-hither signals are ending up with rentiers instead, and the unfairness can trigger protest, as it has in San Francisco. Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive. Labour ends up allocating itself toward low-productivity markets, and the whole economy suffers.

Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive. Hmmm. Just a day or two earlier, a friend of mine had tweeted links to a 2013 paper by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne for my attention: The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? As you would expect, my thoughts turned to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s  The Second Machine Age (along with their prior book Race Against The Machine).

Housing wealth and inequality. Skills, jobs and inequality. Urbanisation and inequality. It was only a matter of time before I went back and delved again into the research of Geoffrey West et al. at the Santa Fe Institute on cities, scaling and sustainability. And from there it was but a short step before I found myself re-reading UN studies on urbanisation, with claims that 60% of the world’s population would be living in cities by 2030. That’s fifteen years away. That’s in the lifetime of most of the people alive today.

The UN study states that in 1800, 2% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1950 that number was 30%. By 2000 it was 47%.

And by 2030 it will be 60%.

Over the past year I’ve had the joy (I use that word advisedly, very ill-advisedly) of making three-hour road journeys in London, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Dubai. Joy indeed. Given the choice, I would rather chop chillies bare-handed and then rub my eyes.


Many workers will take lower-paying jobs elsewhere because the income left over after paying for cheaper housing is more attractive.

Whenever people speak of equality, I tend to think of what was drummed into me at school. A school run by Jesuits in the capital city of what was then a democratically elected communist state. I was taught to fight for the equality of opportunity, as opposed to the equality of outcome.


The Economist article avers that we have to do radical things about planning/zoning laws in cities, particularly those that have become knowledge-economy hubs. Radical things that will sharply increase population density in those cities. That made me start imagining a San Francisco, a Berlin, a Tel Aviv, a Cambridge (Mass., or England, take your pick), with the traffic patterns of Sao Paulo or Bengaluru. Hmmm.

The rebel in me wasn’t that sure about it. Wasn’t there a Mahomet and the Mountain choice to be made, a Great Birnam Wood and High Dunsinane Hill choice to be made? Something I will be spending time thinking about.

Which reminds me. I’ve also been fascinated by the to-ing and fro-ing of arguments about freemium models.

The debates have been quite heated in the music industry, particularly since the advent of streaming services like Spotify. “Why should people be able to get to and enjoy the output of hard work by musicians? Surely musicians deserve to be paid for what they do. Surely a labourer is worthy of his salt. What’s with all this free stuff?”

You know what I mean. And it’s easy to side with such arguments. Free is stealing.


I’ve tended to think of freemium a little differently. I think many societies have freemium models implicit in them. I think many communities have freemium models implicit in them.

In the UK 30 million people pay taxes. The other half don’t. Around 4.5m of the taxpayers pay higher rate taxes. In any active electronic community, there’s some sort of 80-15-5 rule in operation. 80% of the participants don’t actually participate, they lurk. Another 15% are active. And the remaining 5% are hyperactive.

Humanity is in essence social, and one of the benefits of society is to be able to deal with these asymmetries. Sometimes when I look at freemium models I see society. Some pay. Because they can. And everyone benefits.

That works as long as the sum of the payments is enough to cover the costs of everyone’s “benefits”. Which is not always the case, and why we have problems with health, education and welfare. Or for that matter music streaming.

These are some of the things I’m thinking about right now. Why do I write about it? So that I can learn from you, and from the references and pointers you give me.

In the meantime, I hope I’ve given you a few things to read and to think about. Happy reading.








Not fade away. And a House on Coco Road.


Some of you are probably asking yourselves “Why the Grateful Dead? Why not the Rolling Stones?” Every time you hear this song, a part of you goes Stones!

Some of you may be asking yourselves “Why the Grateful Dead? Why not Buddy Holly?” After all, he co-wrote it and then was the first to perform it, with the Crickets.

Your experience matters. Where you heard the song, when you heard it, what you were doing at the time, whom you were with, the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded you.

How you experienced it matters.

That’s why I chose the Grateful Dead. Every time I hear this song, they’re the ones that come into my mind. Even though I know who wrote it and who first played it and who made it really famous.

How you experienced it matters.

History has always been about people and experiences. When those experiences are shared at human scale, they take on a life of their own. That’s why eyewitness accounts matter. That’s why contemporaneous records matter.

It’s said that history gets written by winners. But sometimes victories can be Pyrrhic, and it’s hard to figure out who really won.

I can see from your coat, my friend, you’re from the other side

There’s just one thing I got to know

Who won?

[And that gives me an excuse to plug one of my favourite versions of one of my favourite songs. I was torn between choosing one of the early Crosby Stills and Nash versions, or going for a classic Kantner/Slick Jefferson Airplane version. Wooden Ships happens to be written by Crosby and Nash. And Kantner. So I couldn’t decide. They were both integral parts of my memories of the song. I went for a version that had Crosby as well as Slick.]


I was there.

I. Was. There.

History is at its most interesting, at its most engaging, when it’s written by people who can say “I was there”. Memories.

History used to be by humans, about humans.

Humans have had memories ever since humans had humans. But it hasn’t always been easy to share those memories. Archiving them, “persisting” them, so that they can be shared across generations, that used to be hard. Doing a Lazarus on those memories, bringing them back to life in audio or video, that used to be hard as well.

When the power to print and publish was held by a narrow elite, history was written by “winners”. When the power to record, to edit, to publish audio was held by a narrow elite, history was heard through the voices of “winners”. When the power to film, to edit, to publish video was held by a narrow elite, history was seen through the eyes of “winners”.

Those powers are democratising now. Those powers are available to all of us. There are those who are unhappy with this state of affairs, as their erstwhile powers erode. But for humankind as a whole, this is a Good Thing.

History can be recorded, archived, shared, read, heard and seen at human scale now. For years we’ve lived with the broadcast paradigm and for years we’ve felt an increasing loss of authenticity. That’s not to say that everything that was broadcast lacked authenticity, far from it. But the ethos of broadcast was riddled with that risk.

Today, in the era of the internet and the web and smart mobile devices and increasingly better connectivity, we don’t face those challenges. Instead, we face new ones, to do with airbrushing and Photoshop and provenance and curation. We face new ones to do with the longevity of the materials and techniques we use to record and archive our memories.

But they’re new problems, and we will find new solutions.

In the meantime, we should celebrate our new-found abilities to be part of the historical record at human, individual scale, yet always in community. Because that’s part of what makes us human.

Crowdfunding techniques allow us to become patrons at human scale, to allow people to capture and share their memories of the momentous events that they were part of, that shaped their lives. Events that we may all learn from, become vicarious participants in, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, always human.

That is why I chose to participate in the Kickstarter campaign for The House On Coco Road. It’s the shape of things to come, about the shape of things that once were.

Take a look at the trailer for the documentary. And then decide whether you want history to be human again, to be by humans about humans. Make that house on Coco Road part of your history. Because today you can.

Making selfie sticks obsolete

This one’s going to be flying off the shelves.

iWatch? shmiWatch! I’m going to be whistling Nixie.

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 21.41.01

Here’s the concept video.

skittering around the internets on a saturday evening


Pattie Boyd. An amazing woman. One person. Two husbands. Three songs. The woman about whom three of the world’s greatest rock love songs were written. Something. Wonderful Tonight. Layla.

She’s taken some great photographs over the years; I was lucky enough to pick up a fine framed set of large prints some years ago, taken when they were all in India. [Incidentally, if you’re in or near San Francisco, you can take a look at some of them at the San Francisco Art Exchange. She has an exhibition there, titled Like a Rainbow, running till the end of March. You can buy limited-edition prints there as well].

Hanging out with the Beatles, with George, with Eric; travelling to India with them in the midst of the great Maharishi movement, I’m tempted to think that Pattie would have seen everything, that nothing would surprise her.

Except for this.

Yup. Layla. In Sanskrit. Why ever not?

While on the subject of amazing women in the world of music, here’s one more.

Jayashree Singh.


Here’s what someone in Rolling Stone said a few days ago.

And here’s coverage of the debut album Skinny Alley released last year.

Here’s a sample of the title track.

I’m biased. She’s my cousin. The drummer, who’s incredible, is my nephew. And I still miss Gyan Singh, her husband, his father, who died way before his time a few years ago.

This is what I wrote then about Gyan.

Spending time with him, spending time with Jayashree, chatting with them, listening to them play music as if their lives depended on it, being a pretend-roadie as they toured the deep and dark recesses of Calcutta and Shahgang and Diamond Harbour in the 70s, those were important times for me. They helped make me me. Mark the music.


The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted.

Mark the music.”



On being not alone: some Sunday morning thoughts







I never tire of using Gerald Waller’s iconic photograph of an orphan boy with his first pair of new shoes in 1946. Thank you Gerald Waller.

Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with a newly orphaned baby or child.

Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with someone who’s lost a partner having spent their lives together.

We understand something about the importance of being not alone. And yet, in between the baby-state and the octogenarian-state, we spend a lot of time and energy fighting for personal independence.

When I was young, I was told repeatedly that both organisations as well as organisms went through stages of maturity. People, families, neighbourhoods, companies, even countries, went through a dependent stage, an independent stage and an interdependent stage. Interdependence was seen as a sign of maturity.

As an adolescent at the time, it made complete sense to me. I could see the need for me to flex my independent muscles, understand my bearings, my abilities, my limits, and then to “settle down” in peace and harmony with all around me. So I thought of interdependence not just as a sign of maturity, but as a form of “collective independence”.

For adolescents, being with other people is hard, harder than others would find it. Any form of agreement with others was hard, especially if the others were older people.


It’s what Carly Simon wrote about in The Carter Family:

Grandma used to nag at me to straighten up my spine
To act respectful and read good books
To take care of what was mine
I hated being criticised and asking her permission
So what if her advice was wise, It always hurt to listen

Cat Stevens, now Yusuf, expressed similar views in a litany of songs: Father and Son, Wild World, Where Do The Children Play et al. [Many years later, I would learn that many of the songs in Tea For The Tillerman and in Teaser and the Firecat were written as part of a single work, Moonshadow, telling the story of youth and love across barriers of age and culture].

Photo below courtesy of Simon Fernandez. [A rare example of Che-wearing-a-Che-T-shirt IRL].


Getting agreement from a group is hard. That’s why teenagers are often seen lolling around, apparently disenchanted with everything in life, unable to articulate what they want to do next.

It’s not just about teenagers. If, as an adult, you’ve ever tried to get a group of people to agree to do something — anything — you know the challenge. Organising a golf day. Going to see a film. As soon as you need to gain the support of many people, even organising a picnic is no longer a picnic.

It’s not just about groups. The best marriage talk I’ve ever attended was given by a woman called Faith Forster at the wedding of some close friends. She asked us to imagine that every one of us was a house. Getting engaged meant becoming a semi-detached house. Getting married meant converting that semi into something larger and deeper and potentially more wonderful. But it took time. Working out the plans. Breaking through the walls. Choosing which rooms you’d merge to form a bigger one, which ones you’d choose to retain in preference to the other choice, which ones you’d keep both of, which ones you’d do away with. It took time, mess, compromise, agreement. All things that a true covenant relationship can deal with.

I remember the first time I learnt that every town had its own time, set by nature. That the very idea of a universal time came out of the need for synchronisation, something that the Industrial Revolution hastened via the steam engine and steam trains. As soon as you want to connect two things you need some basis for synchronisation. Common languages, standards, protocols. These ideas have nothing to do with computers or digital or data. Just about connections, analogue or otherwise.

medium_Robin Chase

Someone I have a lot of time and respect for, someone I’m privileged to call a friend, Robin Chase, wrote an article in the FT recently, headlined Disrupted transport will work better for us in the end. She has a new book coming out in a few months, which I’ve pre-ordered. I’d recommend you do the same].



One of the themes that Robin drives through the article (pardon the pun) is how the evolution of the digital age moves us from dealing with individual frictions to dealing with collective frictions. As with the car, in almost any walk of life, there is far greater value to be had in the removal of frictions faced by collectives. It’s a theme that has been tackled by people like Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, providing different yet complementary perspectives on this phenomenon. I am really looking forward to hearing Robin’s views in detail.

While on the subject of collective action. I loved seeing this video of Michael Green at EF2015. A classic example of how digital technology allows peers to work together to remove a particular set of frictions.

[An aside. I find myself unduly cynical about what’s happening with Net Neutrality over in the US, and almost as cynical about what’s happening with it here in Europe. It may appear that the tides are turning towards the support of neutrality on one side of the pond while leaning unexpectedly the other way on the other side of the pond. All I can say is “regulatory capture”: there is a reason why societies came up with laws to do with antitrust and anti-monopolies and anti-restrictive-trade-practices ; these laws appear to mean very little in a digital world. That must change. That will change.]

Being alone or being not alone, these are no longer choices. Many of the problems and issues we face as mankind require collective action. The tools for collective action exist and continue to be refined. Society everywhere is being redefined as a result, and it is normal and natural for incumbent structures of power to complain and to try and stave off the redefinition.

Being not alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. Being alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. And some didn’t have choice as to the state they were in.

But all that has changed.

Being not alone is no longer a statement of choice. It is an imperative. And one that can bear wonderful outcomes for humanity.