Idée Fixe Interlude #8

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I’m Toni Cowan-Brown and each week I’ll share with you some insights on the ideas in tech, politics and pop culture that matter and dominate our minds. And each month I dig into one specific idea that is particularly top of mind at this moment in time. 🧠


Idée Fixe #4: Your guide to Formula 1 🏎

For the past three weeks, the idea that was top of mind for me was Formula One as the 2020 season finally kicked off sans fans. I went over the basics of the sport and what makes it so unique, looking into why it’s such an attractive sponsorship opportunity and big tobacco’s history with the sport. Thank you for all the kind words about this F1 guide. Surprisingly, it’s been one of my most popular idée fixes.

Idée Fixe Interlude 🧠

Until next month’s big idea, here’s what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to lately. This week’s overview includes the end of the EU-US data transfer mechanism known as Privacy Shield, a look at why Twitter is the greatest and most infuriating product and the potential rise of inclusive product cults vs. exclusive memberships and clubs.

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What I’m reading.

🏎 “Data is one thing, but it’s not everything” - these are words to live from this piece on How McLaren Learned to Treat Its Pit Crew Like Athletes. 💻 So How’s the whole working from home (during a global pandemic) working for you? Apple Just Made the Definitive Ad About Working From Home, and It’s Hilarious (not all agree). 📱 TikTok is making nearly as many headlines as Facebook (and that’s not a good thing), so is it time to Delete TikTok? 😡 Nearly four years after I began building Sleeping Giants, the campaign to make bigotry and sexism unprofitable, I’m leaving — but not because I want to. 👇 Finally, I found the tweet below about how tech companies are actually behaviour change companies, a fascinating though. To build a successful product that is both adopted and used, you do indeed need to have an intimate understanding of how humans think and what they need. We often seem to forget the human component to tech. 🤷‍♀️


Politics 🗳️

Trump Replaces Brad Parscale as Campaign Manager, Elevating Bill Stepien (NYT, July 2020)

Brad Parscale is out as President Trump's 2020 campaign manager and Bill Stepien has been promoted to this role. Although, it feels like a role in name only. Parscale will stay on as a senior adviser focused on digital and data, even though he failed both on the numbers and the social side of things just recently.

Parscale used hype and social media ahead of the Tusla rally where he boasted that “nearly one million tickets” were requested when in reality just over 6,000 people actually attended the event. It’s clear that these tactics may no longer be enough and new strategies are needed.

It’s a bold and unusual move (or desperate some might say) as polls have Trump trailing Biden by double digits less than four months out from the election.


Technology 📱

Europe’s top court strikes down flagship EU-US data transfer mechanism (TechCrunch, July 2020)

If you are a tech company and store data (who isn’t these days) and you have users in Europe (who doesn’t these days), I hope you have your European servers ready as you might need to switch to regional data storing and processing for your European users. Although, you might be able to switch to SCCs (which Facebook and others have already been using) as they have been ruled as still valid. That being said, this feels like kicking the can down the proverbial road as the Court still has the option to strike down SCCs. And as ever there are varying opinions on how the recent decision is been interpreted on either side of the Atlantic.

Until now, there was no obligation under the GDPR for data from European users to be stored and processed exclusively in the EU. Instead, a key data-sharing mechanism - the EU-US Privacy Shield Framework - was used by many US companies to ensure that the collection and processing of personal data from citizens in the EU were both possible and done so lawfully, without having to actually store and process data in Europe. This Privacy Shield Framework replaced Safe Harbor which was itself declared invalid in October 2015 by the CJEU in its Schrems decision.

It’s not just about Facebook, this framework has allowed both small and large companies in the US to continue to do business in Europe without having to incur the cost of setting up servers in Europe. Even though having regional servers has never been easier and more affordable, it’s still an undertaking that is both timely and costly especially for smaller companies.

However, Privacy Shield is deemed to no longer a viable solution for “bulk outsourcing of data from the EU to the USA”. On Thursday 16 July, the Court of Justice has invalidated Decision 2016/1250 on the “adequacy of the protection provided by the EU-US Data Protection Shield” with immediate effect. This is undoubtedly going to shake up the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Although, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone as this framework has been criticized since the very beginning. It’s also important to remember that this wasn’t the only legal basis for data transfers.

As a European who spent years in conversations with both Europeans and Americans about data storage and processing, I understand the need to ensure that European data is safe. However, I strongly believe that the conversation should focus on the safe flow of data rather than the location of said data. In today’s world, it’s farcical to focus so heavily on the location of data storage.

Storing data in the European Union won’t be enough. Let’s get specific here - do you want the data in France, Germany or in the UK (or elsewhere)? Do we understand the repercussions (i.e. national laws) of having this data stored in France vs. the UK? And in a post-COVID world where teams are more distributed and remote than ever, it brings up questions such as can an engineer in texas access the data of European customers stored in France, for example, to solve a problem for this customer, which will mean that the data is being accessed from outside of the EU and the data will flow to the US to be worked on? Or will companies be expected to duplicate their workforce and have all technical teams based in the EU as well? I’m over-simplifying but you get the point.

More often than not, these are the very practical questions that are not being discussed, as they are often not understood by the policy elite. The complexity and the sheer number of data flows for companies - both big and small - should not be under-estimated.

Twitter is my favorite product, and the most frustrating company in my portfolio. (Not Boring, July 2020)

Patrick McCormick gives a powerful and very empathetic look into Twitter as a beloved product and non-existent business (my words not his). His biggest frustration seems to be that “Twitter is the most undermonetized product in the world, because it doesn’t know what it is.”

Twitter thinks it’s an ad product, but it’s a subscription product. It thinks it’s an Aggregator, but it’s a Platform. It thinks it’s a social network, but it’s a professional network: one built for the Passion Economy, based on the strength of ideas instead of past experience.

I found McCormick’s take on Twitter to be extremely enlightening, especially as I for one have never used Twitter as a social platform to ‘hang out with friends’ but rather as an aggressive but informal professional network. I’ve used it to identify and connect with prospects, to get advice from people in tech and politics, to connect with potential employers, to start a dialogue with people I agree and disagree with, to discuss data privacy and data flows with complete strangers, to promote my content, and the list goes on… Twitter is the place you go for discovery that will often lead to something bigger away from Twitter.

I really think he is onto something when he insists that “instead of being the world’s least innovative social network, it can be its most innovative professional network. Twitter should be the beating heart of the Passion Economy, and begin capturing some of the tremendous value it creates.” 


(Pop) Culture 🍿

The Gen Z Aesthetic (Sunroom, June 2020)

Lucy Mort asks the questions that are on all of our minds these days: who are these Gen Z? And why are they doing that? And if you haven’t already read it, Mort’s piece is the perfect follow-up to The Tyranni of terrazzo (shared in a previous Idée Fixe Interlude).

The death of "premium mediocre" and the birth of "intentional ugly". The "Millennial Aesthetic" aka "Instagram Aesthetic" aka "Premium Mediocre" has taken pride of place on our billboards, feeds, wardrobes, and offices to become the new cultural norm. But Gen Z meme culture (and its associated aesthetic) is arriving and shaking that shit up.

The next great consumer companies won’t be exclusive clubs. They will be inclusive cults. (by Laura Chau, July 2020)

With most exclusive members clubs having to shut their doors (and losing their main source of revenue) during this pandemic, it’s been fascinating to watch from the outside how they redefine their spaces and offerings to their members. I’ve personally ended up canceling some memberships while renewing or joining others.

This desire for exclusivity also translates into products and apps such as Hey, ClubHouse, and the most recent 👁👄👁 hype which turned out to be a prank, not a product. Chau takes a closer look at the power of exclusivity to drive virality for a community or product. Chau questions where that power of said exclusivity ends? She reminds us, because apparently we do need reminding, that exclusivity alone isn’t a product.

The power of the unknown is perhaps one of the oldest tactics for driving people to openly discuss and speculate. Humans have been doing it for millennia about gods, unsolved murders, even aliens. The allure of secrets is a surefire way to build up mystique and a following — at least up until that following finds out what is actually going on.


Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

After focusing on the crazy rich in Singapore, he turns to the crazy rich living in new York with and vacationing in Capri. Kwan’s new novel, Sex and Vanity, was a very welcomed distraction this week and I finished it in two sittings. Kwan is one of those authors that can project me into his world and keep me glued to the pages with his exceptional eye for detail and character building.

Every person is intriguing and equal parts loveable and detestable making his books real page-turners.


A bit of Optimism with Simon Sinek and his guest, Jenna Arnold

As someone who is fascinated by our current state of ultra polarisation and trying to get very comfortable in very uncomfortable situations, this podcast could not have come at a better time.

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized. Reality, however, is a lot more grey than that, which can make us feel uncomfortable. That’s why I wanted to talk to author, entrepreneur, and activist Jenna Arnold about how we can learn to accept and manage the grey. This is... A Bit of Optimism.

Entrepreneurship and Ethics, Stanford Innovation Lab

If you haven’t read the book about Theranos, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, you are missing out on one of the most mindblowing stories of hype, deception, and technology in Silicon Valley.

In the second episode of our “Entrepreneurship and Ethics” miniseries, Stanford professor Tom Byers connects with Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung. Together, they explore how she found the courage to speak up, and why she’s starting a nonprofit organization focused on creating ethical toolkits for entrepreneurs.


mmhmm app

Still in beta and currently invite-only (but they are sending out invites on a daily basis) this app promises a new and better way to communicate over video. Phil Libin (co-founder and former CEO of Evernote) is adamant he wants to make video experiences ridiculously better. I’m pretty excited about this one. If only the invite could come sooner.


🧐Shit I Googled this week

Q: Is satire useful? Is satire a good thing?
A: For the past few months, I’ve been looking into satire as an art form but also as an educational framework. I’ve come to discover that we seem to need or lean into satire more when times are tough. And well, I don’t think anywho will argue with me that right now times are tough. But it did have me questioning whether satire was actually useful in helping us, not only understand our social and political context but actually help us learn from this form of constructive criticism and do better. I think I’ve landed on yes it is useful, and generally more useful when the satire is gentle and incisive. It’s certainly far more than mere entertainment and fun.


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