Who has more than 350,000 Twitter followers, 4.3 million Google+ followers, and 6 million views on YouTube?
The paragon of our hyper-networked era is Robert Scoble, one of the most prolific and sought-after commentators on everything digital. He travels the world looking for what’s happening on the bleeding edge of technology as Startup Liaison Officer for Rackspace, a provider of cloud computing services.
Scoble has interviewed thousands of executives and technology innovators and reports what he learns on social media sites, YouTube, and his Scobleizer blog, and in books.
More than seven years ago Scoble published (with coauthor Shel Israel) Naked Conversations, a book that helped define the business use of social media. In September, Scoble and Israel released Age of Context, which promises to shape the conversation about the next round of trends in our digital lives. The book, based on more than 300 interviews conducted over 18 months, is an engaging journey through the five “converging forces that promise to change virtually every aspect of our lives”: social media, mobile computing, data proliferation, sensors, and location-based technology. Context is about how we relate to everything around us. In the age of context, according to Scoble and Israel, our relationships with our devices will become far more personal; in fact, those devices will accurately predict what we will want to do next.
The book provides a vivid portrait of Scoble as networked tech junkie:
Robert Scoble was the 107th person to receive a Google Glass prototype. He put them on and started posting short notes on his social networks about his experience. He took them with him as he bopped over to Europe delivering speeches at tech conferences and letting hundreds of people give his Glass a quick try.
After two weeks, he posted his first review to Google+, the default social network for Google Glass users: “I’m never going to live another day without a wearable computer on my face,” he declared.
To illustrate his point, his wife photographed him in the shower wearing the device.
In the first two weeks, Scoble also produced over a thousand photos taken with Glass, as well as six videos.
Scoble is a noted lover of shiny objects. His career is built on meeting with developers of innovative technologies. He is known for both his candor and his enthusiasm.
Google Glass will be a flagship for contextual wearables. They will know when we are walking, skydiving, running, skiing, surfing, sleeping or watching TV. They will give us data and alerts in the context of what we are doing. They will understand our words and gestures, as well as our little taps and blinks.
In between Scoble’s flights and filming and blogging and interviewing, CIO Straight Talk Editor Paul Hemp caught up with him and turned the tables on the Scobleizer, getting him to answer a few questions, in context.
Which of the five forces has the most pointed impact on a for-profit business?
Every business is going to have more and more sensors every year for the next ten years. That means you are going to have more and more data coming in, and you need to keep up with that data and see the patterns so that you can beat your competitor and thrill your customers.
Union Pacific is putting sensors on its rails so it can tell about a month beforehand which car needs to be maintained. General Electric calls this the “industrial Internet,” and it is exactly what we are talking about here — contextual computing, sensors, big data. Beyond the industrial infrastructure, sensors have a big impact on agriculture, for example. Farmers are putting sensors in the ground to measure fertilizer and water levels. They are using GPS-driven tractors to plant and big data analytics to optimize crops.
Given the rapid digitization of health care, you would think that’s another sector where sensors, along with mobile computing and contextual computing, will play a big role.
You are going to be wearing a tattoo on you pretty soon that will tell all sorts of stuff about your health, even whether you have cancer. I have seen prototypes of sensors that are going to study whether a person has cancer or not, and give the health system an early warning, which means the cost of treating the patient is going to be far less than waiting another year until the disease shows up as a symptom.
How much of the health care system is even using electronic records right now? It is still a paper-based industry. It is really struggling to come into the future. If I were a health care CIO, I would be looking at these new techniques of trying to get people to lose weight and stop smoking. In other words, if I can change that by a couple percentage points, that is a huge cost savings. If I can get people to go to the hospital before they really are in trouble, that is a huge cost savings. If there is a new sensor that comes along that detects blood sugar levels, it can greatly affect the efficiency and effectiveness of health care. Somebody just showed me a way to take a picture of yourself every day, and that senses whether you have skin cancer or not by looking at your face for mole growth. The faster you can sense that, the cheaper it is to treat and the better the outcome is.
What other force of the five you discuss in the book will have a profound impact on businesses?
Data from social networks. You are going to know your customers in far deeper detail than you know them today. For instance, the Ritz is right by my house. I have been there 220 times, according to Foursquare, but they still have no clue who I am. Even the social media team that gets paid to watch this has no clue. You can tell by how they write back to me. They have no clue who I am. They do not know that I buy Oban whisky when I go there, that I smoke cigars, that I go swimming there, that I bring friends there, and that I live nearby. They have absolutely no clue.
In ten years, that is not going to be the case. They are going to know me in a very deep way; so, when they talk to me on Twitter, they are going to know exactly how to talk to me. When I walk in the front door, they are going to know exactly what I am there for.
Why don’t they have this comprehensive view of the customer today?
There are multiple systems collecting data about customers, but the data is not shared. I have never stayed in a room there, so they do not know who I am. I have never gotten into the official, companywide database. They care about hotel room nights. They do not really have an idea of anyone else who is coming through the property. If you go to their Navio restaurant, you may use Open Table. If you go to their spa, you may use SpaFinder. These are separate IT systems that are not talking to each other and not sharing data with each other. One of the companies that collects data on the people using the Ritz facilities eventually will sell the Ritz a combined system that will make their customer service much better.
The Ritz is actually known for keeping tabs on and remembering what customers like and dislike.
Once you are a hotel customer — once you actually stay at the Ritz — they know what you like, but they do not integrate with the other systems serving all the people who use their services but don’t stay overnight. When you fly internationally and go to another Ritz somewhere else, they have even less of a clue. At least the bartender, locally, knows who I am.
That was the original social media, but the bartender cannot be scaled.
Right. Why is he not putting all of that data into a database? So when I go to London, they go, “Hey, you’re Robert Scoble. You are already in the system. Thanks for coming here. Do you want your usual Oban?” which would make me go, “Oh, this company has a clue.”
If I’m a knowledge business — say, a law firm — does this apply in any way to my business?
A law firm is still a people business and still needs to know more about its customers. The more you know about your customers when they walk in, the better service you can provide. If you know what this guy has been writing about on Facebook and you can analyze that in real time some new way, that will help you figure out, “Is this a real client I want to deal with?”
When you talk to CIOs, what piques their interest most?
Generally CIOs are interested in learning about what is at the bleeding edge. At General Motors, when I talked about 3-D sensors, they told me that they are working on putting those in their cars so they can understand better what their customers are doing. There is always an interesting discussion when you bring the future and show them the holistic view of patterns that I am seeing. Very few of them have seen the entire pattern. They typically see only a piece of it.
You are a happy guy about the future, I think.
Yes. Generally, the future is pretty bright. There are a lot of challenges we are going to hit, but technology is pretty cool.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 4 (December 2014)