Digital advertising in a post-cookie world

Written by Pim Korsten
April 2, 2021

As Google is slowly phasing out cookies on Chrome and Apple is making the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) opt-in, the online advertising landscape is slowly moving to a post-cookie world. Overall, this will be an improvement for consumers. The cookie era has created an opaque system of programmatic advertising between advertisers and consumers. The incomprehensible mire of players and mechanisms has led to two decades of hardly effective marketing and a strong invasion of the privacy of uninformed or ignorant consumers.

So, what will be next? The industry is already on its way to finding alternatives that bundle data across sites and apps, such as Unified ID 2.0. Furthermore, as first-party data and alternative identifiers such as email and phone number become more relevant, the dominant ad networks of Google and Facebook are likely to benefit and strengthen their duopoly. Third, Google, Apple and others are claiming that they will bring privacy-friendly advertising and metric measurement tools to the market, using cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences and decentralizing the storage of data. Fourth, we might see a partial return to the roots of advertising, with contextual data and situation taking precedence over personal data.

Burning questions:

  • How will small publishers, websites and app developers, who strongly rely on third party trackers and cookies to function or grow, survive in this world? Is an alternative subscription-based business model a viable option for these smaller players of the internet?
  • Which problems will be solved and which new problems will arise when companies such as Google and Apple use cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences?
  • Will the world be better or worse off in terms of privacy if the duopoly of Facebook and Google benefits from this shift to a post-cookie world?

The European Deep Transition Strategy

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
April 2, 2021

A lot has been written about the unfolding European Digital Strategy to reclaim the digital sphere from private interests and make it more equitable and fair. However, the EU is also becoming a regulatory superpower in the non-digital realm. This month, for example, the European Parliament paved the way for new European legislation that stresses corporate accountability and due diligence for human rights within value chains.

Furthermore, the ECB aspires to become a pioneer in fighting climate change, by slashing bond purchases by heavy carbon emitters and advancing “green bonds” and integrating climate risk in its stress tests for the banking sector. And last year, the EU adopted new “eco-design measures” that should make it easier to repair – rather than replace – old household appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators. All these measures are meant to create more equitable and sustainable consumer practices, production processes, and value chains in the real economy. As such, the EU is leveraging the “Brussels Effect” to begin to establish the meta-rules of the Second Deep Transition.

Burning questions:

  • Will other countries follow Europe’s example or will this legislation cause more geopolitical friction?
  • Does the EU have the coherence and unity to push and enforce all legislation?
  • What is the goal or set of meta-rules that the EU has in mind?

Harvest now, decrypt later

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
March 17, 2021

In the coming decade, quantum computers will likely break current modes of encryption. This is not necessarily a problem for future communication and data storage, as cryptography can be made (practically) quantum-proof, but it will retroactively expose data we store and send today. That is, intelligence agencies and hackers are harvesting encrypted data, in the hope that quantum computing will help them to uncover valuable information from it in the future.

Given the fact that quantum computers will be available to institutional users first, governmental agencies will be among the first to decrypt previously harvested data. They will be looking for sensitive or strategic data that could hurt or weaken adversaries. In the long run, as technology becomes available to a broader group of users, non-state actors may take an interest in decrypting data that they can use to blackmail their victims.

While this probably won’t affect the common man so much, as most of us are not of particular interest, high-value targets may have to start worrying about the consequences of having their data exposed.

Burning questions:

  • How much information is truly sensitive after being stored for many years?
  • To what extent does the responsibility to prevent such malign uses lie with developers of quantum computers (and algorithms) and future providers of quantum cloud computing?
  • What will society look like if all of our online data were decrypted and for everyone to see?

Non-fungible tokens are all the rage

Written by Arief Hühn
March 17, 2021

Do you remember CryptoKitties, the virtual cats that collectors spent thousands of dollars to buy on the blockchain? They seem to have been merely the forerunners of the currently faddish non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In essence, any digital asset that a creator wants to make unique can be turned into an NFT (digital works of art, music, sports moments, and even tweets) and monetized. The NFT acts as a non-duplicable digital certificate of ownership; it will be stored on the blockchain and can be bought and sold like any piece of property. While the digital asset itself will still exist on the Internet, only the buyer of the NFT can call himself the owner of the “original” asset. As such, NFTs can be a financial investment, a sentimental purchase, or a collector’s item. NFTs can even contain smart contracts that, for instance, give the creator a cut of any future sale of the token. Although opinions on NFTs vary, once the hype around the space settles down, the idea of tradable digital assets will be here to stay.

Burning questions:

  • Which industries are next in line to make use of NFTs?
  • How will the tokenization of art and music influence the production and experience of these cultural items?
  • What will be the consequences of the introduction of digital scarcity for digital economies?
  • Will we be able to reliably connect NFTs to physical items?

The unique strength of Chinese business alliances

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
March 9, 2021

Geely, one of China’s biggest automakers, has announced strategic partnerships with Tencent, Baidu and Faraday Future. Li Shufu, founder of Geely, argues that these partnerships are inspired by the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, a school of thought from ancient China’s Warring States period that urges weaker organizations to cooperate in order to compete with incumbent powers. It may be difficult to determine whether Li’s vision is markedly different from regular strategic cooperation between companies. However, there seems to be a unique quality to the cooperation of Chinese tech firms. Geely, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba create collective business models to an extent that U.S. tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple do not. Besides the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, the idea of guanxi capitalism, which assigns high importance to interpersonal relationships, further adds to the importance of such cooperation within the Chinese economy. Furthermore, the developmental state tradition of China places the Chinese state at the center of facilitating such cooperation. In the coming years, Chinese business alliances will likely gain importance and could increasingly come to create a global competitive advantage for Chinese tech firms.

Burning questions:

  • To what extent do Chinese business alliances create a competitive advantage over the U.S. and Europe?
  • Does Li’s reference to the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances reflect the growing tensions between the Chinese state and Chinese tech firms?

Will a post-corona era arrive in the coming years?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
March 9, 2021

The phases a society experiences in a crisis are predictable, according to disaster psychology. First, we enter the honeymoon phase: people don’t quite feel the scope of the crisis, nor of its implications and are willing to work together. Then, a period of distrust and depression dawns, in which the gap between community needs and available resources widens. It can get grim: the disillusionment phase follows. In the final phase of reintegration, we adapt to a new reality. We are presently in the phase of disillusionment. According to experts, the pandemic will eventually become endemic, circulating the global population for years to come. However, there are strong indicators (e.g. new variants outsmarting vaccines, the coronavirus being zoonotic) that several more years of social distancing measures will be required before we reach that stage. The call for politicians to stop referring to the current situation as temporary and instead consider it permanent is therefore growing louder. This would allow the phase of reintegration to begin, in which new light can be shed on the costs and benefits of mitigating the impact of the coronavirus.

Burning questions:

  • Will societies reach consensus on ethical issues such as the price each generation must pay for mitigating the impact of the virus or the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated?
  • Will financial aid for certain businesses like airlines, physical stores, etc. continue even if it takes years for their services to be enjoyed again as they could in the pre-coronavirus world?
  • Will people be able to adapt to the reduction of freedom and physical contact that comes with mitigation, or will this result in endless unrest?

Crowdsourcing morality for autonomous systems

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
February 25, 2021

With the advent of autonomous machines, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and even weapons, comes a need to embed some kind of morality into these machines. By definition, autonomous systems have to make choices of their own accord, to go left or right, to kill or not to kill, and we want these choices to reflect our own values and norms. One way of achieving this is for developers to translate explicit normative rules into code. Another way, arguably more democratic, is to crowdsource morality. For instance, by asking the public to “vote” on all sorts of moral dilemmas (e.g. the well-known trolley problem) or to let autonomous systems learn from our actual behavior (e.g. from observing how we drive). Interestingly, such forms of crowdsourcing could actually result in autonomous systems whose behavior aligns with local values and norms, instead of some kind of desired universal morality. The downside, however, would be that those systems, especially those that mimic our behavior, would not be able to make “better” decisions than we humans can.

Burning questions:

  • Would these forms of crowdsourcing morality lead to increased public trust in autonomous systems and allow for greater societal acceptance?
  • Is the end-goal of moral AI systems to have them align with our norms and values, or is there potential for robots to behave better than we do?
  • Could machines ever become morally superior to humans and what would this mean for the future of humanity?

Democratization of finance

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
February 25, 2021

A lot has been written recently to explain and clarify the GameStop rally. The important reasons are clear: a bunch of new retail investors and young traders were welcomed on financial markets last year. Furthermore, the pandemic breeds boredom and the lockdown forced savers to stockpile money. An already famous revolt against financial elites is what followed. But more important is that these events should be seen in the context of an underlying long-term trend: the democratization of finance. As a consequence of financial innovations (since the 80s), securities have become increasingly easy to access and tradeable with (almost) zero transaction costs.

This has upsides and downsides. More inclusion, liquid stocks and a power shift away from intermediaries have some clear benefits. However, those who think the defeat and big losses of some hedge funds are a prefiguration of the New Financial World, may be in for a disappointment. In the long run, financially illiterate persons will most likely bear the most risk and collect the most losses. Furthermore, if the product is free (trading), you are the product. If there is one important lesson to be drawn from recent events, it would be that the democratization of finance should comprise more than easy access, low fees, and playful interfaces. The challenge ahead will be to create new forms of protection and regulation without being paternalistic.

Burning questions:

  • Is the GameStop Rally ultimately a consequence of animal spirits, mass hysteria, market manipulation or imperfect market structure?
  • Where are we to look for protection of retail investors and regulation of democratized markets: central or decentral governance?
  • At which point do the downsides of extreme liquid markets and zero commission trading (e.g. order flow, investor sentiment, speculation, etc.) outweigh the clear benefits?
  • How can finance be responsibly and durably democratized?

Biden’s America on the world stage

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
January 14, 2021

Looking back on the period of 2000-2020 conjures up a gloomy picture of U.S. global leadership: from the unilateral war of Bush and the failed multilateralism of Obama to the unilateral sanctions of Trump. In 2021, Biden will become president of the U.S. What does this mean for the future of U.S. global leadership?

Our observations

  • Biden will attempt to counter China by building new alliances. After the signing of the RCEP trade deal in Asia, Biden suggested that the U.S. has to find other (democratic) allies for a new trade deal (similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership quit by Trump).
  • Both the European Commission and Biden are supportive of a new EU-US agenda for global change.
  • Biden will return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. He has also vowed to cooperate internationally to reduce fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Biden will rejoin the World Health Organization and has pledged to cooperate more closely with the United Nations.
  • Biden promises he will call for a global summit to pressure tech companies to reform their practices around privacy and surveillance.
  • Biden has called NATO the “single most important military alliance in the history of the world”.
  • Biden wants to convene all democratic countries in a “Summit for Democracy” to discuss three major themes: corruption, authoritarianism, human rights.

Connecting the dots

If we look back to the period of 2000-2020, we can identify different types of U.S. global leadership. From 2000 to 2008, the global leadership of Bush may be characterized as “unilateral destabilization”. The “Bush Doctrine” refers to his principle of unilateralism (i.e. going it alone). Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and did not seek United Nations legitimization for the invasion of Iraq. From 2008 to 2016, the global leadership of Obama may be characterized as “sabotaged multilateralism”. Obama struck a deal with Iran about its nuclear program and was close to signing the historic Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. However, Trump withdrew from both of them. From 2016 to 2020, the global leadership of Trump may be characterized as “unilateral sanctions”. Trump’s unilateral threats, sanctions and trade wars affected both adversaries (China, Iran) and allies (EU, Japan).

How should we characterize the global leadership of Biden? It depends on how likely Biden’s strategy of multilateralism (see observations) is to succeed. If Biden, for instance, strikes a deal with the EU on China or devises an alternative global trade deal, he may succeed where Obama failed. However, it is more likely that Biden’s multilateralism will reap even fewer rewards than Obama’s. Most importantly, the EU is unlikely to agree to U.S. demands to counter China, whereas a global trade deal at the scale of RCEP is unlikely given Biden’s electoral promises around trade. Such “strategic impasses” could render Biden a mere caretaker when it comes to U.S. global leadership, although smaller “multilateral wins” are likely (e.g. the Paris Agreement, WHO).

When a “strategic impasse” turns Biden into a caretaker, we should draw on what the previous decades of U.S. global leadership have taught us. The U.S. chose to unilaterally destabilize a region, then failed to reach its goals through multilateralism, then chose to unilaterally pressure both its adversaries and its allies, and then, in our scenario, again failed to realize its goals through multilateralism. To be sure, there is also an ideological force at play –both Republican presidents opted for unilateralism and both Democratic presidents opted or will opt for multilateralism.

However, there is a deeper force at play as well. It is the decline of U.S. global leadership: from unilateral destabilization, to failed multilateralism, to unilateral sanctions, back to failed multilateralism. The main question is how other powers will react. In different elements of the global order (e.g. trade, human rights, environment), different powers (e.g. China, Europe) will attempt to lead in this new world.

Implications

  • The domestic political situation will dampen Biden’s ability to fulfill his ambitions. The U.S. is not merely “polarized” between two camps. Instead, there is a four-way struggle (that resembles European politics with multiparty parliaments) between progressive/far-leftist Democrats, moderate Democrats, nationalist/far-right Republicans and moderate Republicans. It will make governing the U.S. much more difficult, as its political system is, contrarily to European countries, not built for such a struggle.

  • China could stand to benefit from Biden’s America. However, if Biden succeeds in bringing about a grand multilateral program aimed at countering Chinese influence (e.g. Transatlantic policy, a global trade deal), the odds of a Western front against China will grow significantly.

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.