Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten is the ideal candidate to talk to about the future of communication; his company TNW exists in the perfect intersection between tech and journalism. As a self-professed optimist, the future he paints is a bright one. Below he speaks to us about mainstream anxieties about technology, journalism, robots taking our jobs, and why we should cut teenagers some slack.
What, in your opinion, are the biggest ways technology has changed the way we communicate?
The biggest change is the instant nature of communication and how easy it is to communicate with several people at the same time, I think that’s very much underestimated. There was a photo recently of kids sitting near a Rembrandt painting looking at their phones. The mainstream criticism was “there they are, sitting next to one of the most famous paintings in the world and all they can do is look at their phones”. And I thought, well that’s a very negative way of looking at it, they’re probably sending a message to their grandma saying “I’m next to the Night Watch”.
When grown-ups see kids sitting on the couch with their phone they think they’re doing nothing. Actually, they’re much more communicative than we imagine and much more engaged with everybody in their social circle than we ever were. My advice is always: if you feel that your child is spending too much time on their phone go and sit down next to them and ask politely ‘do you mind if I watch you what you’re doing? As I’m curious. How do you chat? How many people do you chat with and what about?' They might think it’s awkward at first but if you’re genuinely interested, they might show you something interesting.
My daughter once showed me a group with 60 people in it and there were 6000 messages a day. I thought ‘that’s overwhelming’ but the interesting thing is she doesn’t keep up with it. She said it’s just like being in a bar with 60 people all in conversations; of course, you’re not going to follow everything that’s being said, but it’s nice being in the bar. It’s very positive but a very different way from how you and I experience communication because if we get messages we feel we’ve go to read them all.
It’s amazing that they have adopted a new medium without judgment or anxiety. For them, it’s a normal thing. For us, it’s a new thing. We think ‘how is this impacting us and what are the negative sides? But they don’t care, they just get on with it.
We think ‘how is this impacting us and what are the negative sides?' But they don’t care, they just get on with it.
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There are studies claiming skills for empathy are not as developed for the next generation, that they can’t read micro-expressions as they use screens and aren’t as familiar with human faces. Do you think there’s truth in that?
I can’t imagine there is. And even if there is, I’m an optimist, so even if they’re slightly worse off at that particular skill I think yes but they are picking up other skills that we could never learn. For us, the internet and computers are a new skill, it's something we didn’t have and now we do. For them, it’s the norm. And if that means they’ll change a little...well, I think it’s too soon to say that’s a negative thing. It’s like if when cars were invented you said I think these people are slightly worse at horseback riding now. Give it a while and people will pick up different skills.
Another mainstream anxiety is that, with the improvement of VR, people will find virtual worlds too beautiful and check out of the real world. Do you think that’s likely?
I don’t find it worrying. When I was a child, I was addicted to movies. Every time the TV guide arrived I would take a magic marker and circle what I wanted to watch and make a plan. I think my parents were worried. They thought ‘go play outside, make friends, do something other than watching movies all day’. But my father had the same fascination with comic books. He would sit in his room doing nothing but read comic books.
People who have a discomfort with themselves to begin with are going to find an escape. At one point everyone was addicted to Facebook. But even with Facebook today, there’s a lot of criticism directed at it but overall, I do think Facebook causes more happiness than grief.
In a world of fake news, deep fakes, and troll farms it becomes very hard for our audience to trust the stories we offer. Simultaneously we are connected in more ways than ever before. How do we respond as communicators when the technology that connects us similarly undermines our efforts to build trust?
To begin, the way we should handle ourselves should be to win back trust. But we also need to fight against the witch hunt against the media. It’s good to realize you have influence as media and take responsibility for that fact. But if you simultaneously have Trump saying ‘fake news’ when it’s not true I think, as the media, we need to defend ourselves against that.
Politics since John F. Kennedy, who was the first television president, created a direct connection to its audience. It really changed politics and not always for the better. At one point politicians were doing more behind the scenes. We didn’t completely trust in what they were doing but there was some logic there. For example, I read that for the past 50 years the majority of people in the UK are for the death penalty although it is no longer practiced there. Democracy doesn’t mean that people do what they want, democracy means that people choose those who are hopefully better at making decisions that are in their best interests, although it might not be what they want.
The 24/7 nature of the media has made it more attractive for politicians to not do what’s in our best interest, but instead do what pleases us.
Politicians want to be popular with the audience so they present things they fear so they can say ‘I know what you fear and I can fix it.’ Fearful people are more likely to listen to you, even if the fear is irrational and it doesn’t represent the biggest issues.
You could say this is all the media’s fault, but it’s a side effect of there being much more communication, more visibility, and more transparency. I think as an industry we should be aware of this- unwanted side effects may not be our fault but we bear some responsibility.
For example, we all think press shouldn’t be censored. But if a person commits suicide the press collectively have to decide we’re not going to write about that, because when we write about it it inspires people do the same. I think that’s a beautiful example where we say we don’t want censorship, we always want to be honest, but we also take human responsibility. It’s good to define what we can and can’t do; where the barriers are, how far we can go to be responsible.
Deciding that ethical border is what makes us human and is something that computers still find hard to define.
Yes. I think communication is like honesty in general. If we are in the same room and have a conversation, there is a certain level of trust, or we would not be in the same room. There’s also a level of honesty, as we both know that we have to be honest. But also, you can’t be too honest, because sometimes people don’t want to hear everything, so we develop a social filter.
You don’t want to be that person that says ‘I’m just being honest’ when you’re insulting people. Honesty is not always black and white as sometimes it’s needlessly painful for people. So as a person, as a media professional, you have to find that balance. You’ve got to find the threshold of where honesty becomes oversharing or hurtful.
Facebook is investing heavily in journalism. Do you think tech companies should be investing in the media considering they are responsible for many of the problems the industry is facing?
I see several sides. I don’t currently trust Facebook. If they’re investing in journalism my instant reaction is ‘yeah sure, you made a bullet list of positive-sounding initiatives and this was one of them. Let's throw a few million at it and hope it's good PR.’ It’s awful that I think of them in this way but this is something I am cynical about.
On the other hand, when Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post my instant reaction was that it can’t hurt. Because we do want to have press, press is what holds power accountable. It was the press that exposed Nixon, not the police. The old business model doesn’t work anymore, so we need to try something new. If that means rich people paying for it, well, so be it. Famous artists often had rich benefactors.
There have always been strings attached. In the 60s and 70s, newspapers would make money from people actually buying a newspaper. That was roughly a third of their profits, another portion was advertising and the rest subscriptions. Advertising had an effect. There has always been bias, it’s very difficult to separate from that. Even if you do your best there’s always some influence.
If you work at a newspaper, you know that your job is on the line. You know who the biggest advertisers are but are you going to go after them knowing it spells the end of your job? I don’t know. Maybe you are but you’re not going to be as passionate about it as you would be if you are completely independent.
What do you think about the future of journalism, considering recent media layoffs? Is a subscription-based model the answer?
There’s no one answer. The Correspondent for example is a great experiment, as they found what works for them. But the fact that it works for them does not mean that it will work for everyone else. It is precisely because they are unique that it works for them specifically.
It’s the same with John Gruber and his blog Daring Fireball. He’s one of my favorite writers. Sometimes he publishes only 2 stories in 3 days but they’re all little gems that I save in the morning to read with a cup of tea later. He can be very anti companies like mine which is ironic, but I like his thinking. He built up his own business so he delivers high-quality content to a very small audience, but just enough so he can sell sponsorship on his own terms, and he’s very successful at that. But when I read his stuff I think, I understand that you’re like this, but it’s very difficult to scale or replicate. It works for him as he is the only one doing that. If you do the same thing for 1000 people it would no longer work. If do the same thing for a team of 20 it also no longer works. We’re at a point in time where unfortunately nobody knows what the new business model is going to be and what’s going to work.
One theory is that it’s very difficult to resist ‘free’. Facebook is free and we all got on it. News became free and we loved it. But it takes a long time to see the hidden costs of free. With Facebook, we are now finding this out. We got this thing for free for years but all that did was set up a system for them that doesn’t do what’s best for us: because we are the product.
A similar thing could happen with news, where we think we don’t need to pay for a newspaper as we can just get it free. But this thinking has screwed up the whole system. Right now I’m at a point where I’m actually thinking about getting a newspaper again. I’d rather spend a few hundred a year for a source that I can trust that's going to give me some stability. And I wonder if that’s going to happen to everyone at some point.
The Correspondent is an example of this process. They understood it and said, we are going to do quality research that you can trust, and you can pay for it as part of the deal. I have a lot of respect for that, for that vision, but it’s not the final solution for everything.
As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, do you think AI will replace our jobs?
For the past 120 years, with every new technology, people have always predicted it would replace all jobs. During the first industrial revolution, they said all factories would become automated and jobs would disappear. Of course, that didn’t happen. Of all top jobs in the US at that time, only the bell boy was replaced, the rest of the professions are all still there. Technology might change jobs but it doesn’t replace them. And if it does, it creates new ones.
Also, when we talk about ‘the world’ we are referring to rich Western countries. Developing countries may become more efficient and wealthy and so develop the need for jobs that might not currently exist there. Low income, high physical impact jobs could potentially disappear and be replaced by more writing and thinking jobs. Here, in the Western world, there’s no sign that any technology anywhere is replacing jobs, there’s just no proof.
Even if at one point that changes and we need less people, it will be because as a society we are so efficient that it will probably mean that we make more money. Which will mean we can use that money to pay people to work less- which would actually be great.
In saying that, with every tool that was supposed to make us more efficient we didn’t work less: we worked more. A job used to be 9-5 and now we are all on our phones and because we can work everywhere, we do we work everywhere. It would be great if you could do your job in 3 hours a day and make the same amount of money because of automation. If you’ve organised it so well that the AI is doing 70% of your work.
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Do you think there will be any last skill, like songwriting for example, that is uniquely human and cannot be replicated by machines?
I went to the ballet on Saturday and there were many young, upcoming, ambitious dancers. I realized there’s a very fine balance that they strike with their craft, between making it seem seamless but also letting you feel that they put a lot of work into it. If they made mistakes the whole time you would be annoyed but if it would be extremely perfect, you wouldn’t be interested. So it needs to be clear they put in the effort while looking effortless.
Persian rugs all include one mistake for two reasons: the first reason is they believe it’s an insult to God to make something perfect as only God makes perfect things. The second is to show that it is human. A tailor-made suit also. You recognize it not because it’s perfect, but because its hand made, the buttons are hand-stitched which is slightly more irregular than a machine. We actually like imperfection as it shows our humanity.
But, and this is a big but, computers can do that as well. 3D renderings for example always looked fake until they started introducing mistakes in the rendering. A lens flare is a mistake the photographer will try to avoid it but computers now replicate this to make it look more 'authentic'. So I can imagine that there’s a song made by an AI that has these small imperfections and an emotional tone that triggers you so fundamentally that you cry, even though you know it’s not a person. I think that’s possible. I think computers can make emotionally charged works of art, I think that would be awesome, but I don’t think that they’ll replace us. It’s like being afraid Mcdonald's will replace all food, there’s a place for all things.
What’s one of the craziest bits of technology you’ve seen?
So it’s a subtle one. The screen on the newest iPhone; at one point I was in bed and I was reading something on my phone and suddenly it looked like a paper mockup of a phone. As if I had printed a paper phone and shone a light on it. I realized the screen is so good that it looks exactly like the surface it is imitating. It was a very subtle thing but the difference in quality is huge. I like these subtle changes in technology.
I’m always slightly annoyed when people say there’s no innovation anymore. There’s so much innovation. There’s no new phone but the smartphone is the most successful product in 100+ years. There’s no object that’s so powerful, that so many people use personally. They say it might take another 100 years before we get another product like that, we may not experience a product that’s so impactful in our lifetime. As a child, I was interested in technology. I read scientific magazines that tried to predict what was coming, but there was no way I could have ever dreamed of anything even closely related.
Boris is a successful serial entrepreneur and co-founder of pr.co and The Next Web, a global technology blog and event organizer. With more than 15 years of experience and a keen eye for emerging trends in the digital space, Boris has played an important role in shaping the global conversation around technology, startups, and innovation.. Connect on LinkedIn or send an email