My dad’s letter to kids of the future

My dad, left, William R. Scoble Jr., and me.

Two weeks ago my dad died.

We had a year warning that day was coming, after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last July. We had more days with him than we expected. Which I was very grateful for.

My dad took our family out of poverty. He grew up in the projects in Brooklyn (which, I believe, are still there). He was the first to go to college and chose engineering almost by accident, which he writes about below. His first job out of college, after earning a PhD in electrical engineering and material science, was as an engineer at Ampex. He moved us across the country to a place none of us had heard of: Cupertino, California. This was in 1971. That move gave me an unbelievable amount of privilege which I’ve been thinking about a lot. Because Silicon Valley grew up around us, literally, I had a front-row seat from a very early age (I got a tour of Apple when it was only a building or two back when I was 13 in 1977. I was in the first computer club at Hyde Jr. High in Cupertino that same year. Apple started a mile away from my house, so close that I stole apricots from where many of its buildings now sit.

Funny, one of the things we actually did like talking about was companies. He watched CNBC right up to his death and enjoyed the stock market. One of his last things he did was put some money into a trust fund for our kids and put it all onto Tesla. That was about a month ago. Since then it has gone up about 40%. He always did do pretty well in the stock market.

I talked about that and him a bit in a video today on Twitter, I was so proud that he got to see my newest book, which definitely is the best one of my career, and explains why autonomous cars, robots, and augmented reality glasses will transform industries. Doing that work let me to believe Tesla would go way up, but it was my brother who convinced him to buy the kids Tesla. My dad always had a golden touch with stocks.

But if there’s one defining thing I remember always taking heat from my dad about it was that he wanted us to get a technical education because he saw just how much that changed his life. He was disappointed I chose journalism and economics to study when I went to University and later in life he turned after he saw how I turned that into a successful career.

That said, he wrote down just how important he sees education being and he wanted me to share that with everyone here. The rest of the story is that he went into the Army, learned all sorts of things including how radiation worked (which led him to 25 years of work on military satellites where he designed microelectronic circuits that were radiation resistant for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company) and he used the GI Bill which got him the support to go to college and, eventually, Rutgers University where he earned his PhD. I believe strongly that we need a new GI Bill to help retrain Americans and get them to go to University to learn the skills they need to support their families and our nation. Here’s his words about how a few small changes can make a huge change in one’s life:

I think attending college is such a potential life changing event that everyone who wants to go (and is mentally able) should be able to go although I would suggest Junior or Community Colleges as most students who don’t finish college drop out the first or second year. Two of my sons dropped out and enlisted in the service from 2 year colleges.

I considered how people get to college who are both poor and not motivated by family. No one in my family discussed the need or possibility of going to college nor even what kind of job I might go for. I realize that where you live has a tremendous effect on  ones decision to go to college.

My parents were both the children of coal miners from the Pittston, PA, area who married and moved to New York City in 1935-6 for work. My father dropped out of school in the 8th grade and my mom graduated from high school.

My dad didn’t have a trade and so had odd jobs including cooking. I was born in 37 and my parents applied for an apartment at the new low income Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn. At the time they were the largest housing project in the US with room for thousands of residents. We moved into our apartment in 1939 (our building was 6 stories high with 5 entrances holding 30 families per entrance). It was a safe place to live and I used to frequently wander away and get lost (I was 3-4) and one time was found lying on a nearby shore sleeping. The police recommended putting my name/address on my clothes which solved the getting lost phase. 

During the war my dad was trained and got a job as a machinist. My parents knew nothing about education or the educational system in NYC so I was enrolled at the local elementary school, PS27, where I spent 8-1/2 years, kindergarten through 8th grade (around 2nd grade, the NYC education system switched from starting classes in January and September to starting all classes in September and, thus, I skipped ahead a half year). I was not a great or serious student and I estimate that I was usually rated in the 3rd quartile and cannot remember ever failing a subject.

In 7th and 8th grade students who were taking the entrance exam for advanced high schools were given algebra on a voluntary basis after school. Since my parents and I didn’t have a clue about these schools, I didn’t volunteer. At the end of 8th grade, we were given a booklet containing all of the public high schools in NYC with the curriculum, subjects and general information about each. We were told which academic high school we would be sent to unless we selected another school. There were 64 public high schools in NYC in 1950 which included the special high schools requiring an entrance exam, vocational high schools and academic high schools.

After the war, my dad obtained a regular job as a machinist in Jersey City where he had to work nights. None of his coworkers wanted to be the union steward so my dad accepted it. This meant that although he was the most junior member of his group, he was immune from layoffs which really helped us financially.

I went to my assigned high school (called Manual Training HS although it was an academic high school) and took the classes I was assigned. A Puerto Rican friend who lived in the same building entrance as me, who started high school a year before me, talked me into joining the swimming team. This was one of those life changing moments as virtually everyone on the swim team became a life guard at one of the city’s pools or beaches. This was significant because every single lifeguard I worked with was planning on attending college and some were talking of attending that fall. Some of the classes I took required that I take a statewide test called the NY State Regents Exam. Test/Answer booklets were available which contained the tests given over the past 10 years. These interested me for some reason and I studied them for the 4 classes I took (biology, geometry, earth science and intermediate algebra) and did very well on these exams averaging 95%. 

As I said we lived in low income public housing which had the requirement that you had to move if your income exceeded a certain amount. My parents income exceeded this amount and they were put on a waiting list for intermediate income housing. This list was not moving quickly enough for the housing authority and so we were given a 30 day notice to move or be evicted in June 1953, just prior to going into my senior year. We couldn’t find a satisfactory place in Brooklyn and so my parents decided to move to Jersey City since my dad’s job was there. 

I was enrolled at Lincoln HS for my senior year and joined the swim team. New Jersey required an extra year of history to graduate so I had a full schedule with no optional classes. I quickly made some friends and had no difficulty passing the classes. I was unable to take Physics or Chemistry in high school due to my lack of knowledge of what might be important for the future and did not know about the College Board exams. The extraordinary thing about my high school is that Jersey City Junior College occupied the building at night, starting at 4pm and accepted any high school graduate from Jersey City, tuition free. In March of my senior year I finally figured out that I had essentially no salable skills and so decided to go to JCJC. I selected Pre Engineering as my field of study and started in September 1954.

A New Chapter Opens

Our kids are about to close out their school year so it is a good time to think about our future plans. That isn’t the only chapter that’s closing in our lives. Here’s a few others:

1. Our book about the Spatial Computing industry “The Infinite Retina” is done and has gotten a ton of five-star reviews, with Qualcomm’s head of AR/VR saying “it’s a must read.”

2. Business cycles are starting afresh due to COVID-19.

3. I’ve finished a two-year cleanup of social media, leading to the development of a ton of lists for/about the tech industry and especially Spatial Computing, at https://twitter.com/scobleizer/lists.

4. The AR/VR industry is about to start a new cycle with many new products coming over the next 24 months.

Maryam, Irena, and I have been talking through things over the past few weeks as these chapters came to a close and we see new chapters opening.

1. Infinite Retina will go in a new direction without me, Irena Cronin will share more over the next few weeks as to what that is. This ends my financial interest in the company as well.

2. I’m going in a new direction, focusing far less on social media, getting back to my user roots and I have some itches that I’m exploring, but more on that in a few months.

3. Until the kids are able to really go back to school full time I’m focusing much more on raising my kids, especially since Maryam’s work role has become much more important.

Anyway, I’m going to take the summer mostly off of social media and will come back with a new focus and new projects. Will talk more then.

As to Irena: thank you so much for being an awesome partner, and I’m very proud of the work we did together. Our book’s reviews denote how good it is. For those who don’t know you, I’ve come to see that you understand the industry at a far deeper level than anyone else I know and that’s saying something!

Talk to you more in the fall.

A celebration of the analog: why Burning Man, Coachella, and VMworld won’t translate to the virtual

(Photo Credit: Empire of the Sun at Coachella shot by Robert Scoble)

The rocker Neil Young taught me about analog.

He showed me that humans have evolved to experience the real world and the analog waves it sprays at us from all directions and that there’s a gap when you try to experience the same through a computer. IE, virtually or digitally.

He took me into his audio studio where his audio engineer, John Nowland, played Harvest Moon on a big two-inch analog tape deck. The music streamed out of huge Tannoy speakers in a studio that my former producer helped his dad build. It was glorious.

Then we listened to the same music in digital form. John pointed out that analog is a smooth wave which is why you feel it emotionally while a digital recording is quantized. Cut up into thousands of pieces per second. The music, even when listened to at high resolution, had a coldness to it.

Something was missing.

Neil has spent decades trying to close that gap and his efforts are covered in a book “To Feel the Music,” that Phil Baker cowrote. Yet the gap is still there and in the strategy work I’m doing with quite a few events who are moving to virtual/digital efforts today, due to the Coronavirus, I find that literally no one knows about this gap and that it’s holding back many efforts and, even, will doom some of them.

Most event teams are trying to save their brands, their audiences, and especially their businesses now that we are forced into virtual events and probably will be so forced for a year until a vaccine becomes generally available.

Yet they are approaching it like they approached their physical events. Let’s first talk about what makes physical events special: they are celebrations of analog. Even a tech conference like Dreamforce or VMworld is a celebration of analog. There’s high-touch everywhere. Signs that stimulate our analog senses. Even smells and textures, like the grass that Salesforce laid out at Moscone for Dreamforce, augments our human senses. We go to conferences about technology because we learn better when we get to see a huge screen with amazing audio and can then get our questions answered in analog afterward. Shaking someone’s hand is analog and instantly transfers trust and respect. That won’t come back for years, if ever.

Try doing the same in a Zoom call or, even, in Virtual Reality. It just isn’t the same. There’s a gap and that gap won’t get closed soon. Analog is better for a whole range of things, like:

Serendipity.
Human Interaction.
Learning.
Navigation.
Emotional engagement.

Think about it, watching a sunset with friends is emotionally much more engaging in real life than trying to do the same on, say, FaceTime. Same for a whole range of things.

But if analog is so powerful, why do you listen to music on Spotify digitally?

Distribution.

It is nearly impossible to distribute analog experiences to large numbers of people. Even Burning Man was falling apart trying to do that. When only 30,000 wanted to go to the Playa things were OK. But now more than 100,000 want to come and that was causing tons of problems in conflict with environment and even local communities that were overrun with Burners driving RVs.

What should a Burning Man do, then?

First, set expectations that it’s not going to be the same. It can’t be. So don’t hold out any pretense that it will be. Don’t even try to be the same. Rethink EVERYTHING.

What should stick? Those things that take advantage of being digital. Distribution. The ability to gather large audiences. I saw Marshmello play at Coachella a few years ago. I saw him along with about 15,000 other people in the Sahara Tent. It was quite enjoyable, with all sorts of effects, an amazing sound system, and about 100 huge LED screens all around, even on the ceiling (some were even on robots that could lower and spin them). Yet a few years later Marshmello was playing to 11 million people inside Fortnight. It wasn’t quite as enjoyable, but it was enjoyable and it brought a new interactive experience that wouldn’t be possible in Coachella. Not to mention the Coachella experience cost me thousands of dollars and the Fortnight one was free.

Because of this gap between analog and digital some other things: attention spans are generally lower on digital. Or are they? Watch a Twitch channel and you will see hundreds of thousands of people watching someone play a video game most not leaving for hours. Why is that? Well, first the content is engaging and fast moving. Similar to what they do at Burning Man or Coachella. Tons of imagery flowing by every second. Nothing gets boring or stops. Every second you are seeing something new.

Along with the visuals, though, is a chat room. Every second something new. A new comment from someone else. They rarely stop. Ever.

So this is the new imperative for event teams: make something like TV that never stops changing and never stops flowing.

Can Burning Man turn the experience into a TV channel? That’s the problem. Most of what happened on the Playa was not covered by TV. Or even recorded.

My advice? Hire Beyonce.

“But we can’t afford her,” one team told me. “She’s not as expensive as last year.” I answer back.

They didn’t get what I really was saying, though. To do well in this new world you need to do something that gets attention. All these events will be competing with Trump and Coronavirus and the economic ruins. How will they be more interesting than that?

We need a new dream. A new world. A new mission.

Hiring Beyonce is a metaphor for “do something spectacular.” So many conference teams are worried about pleasing bosses, fitting it into a budget, or trying to recreate last year’s glory.

Fuck all that. It won’t work.

What is needed now is creativity and most conference teams haven’t had to be entrepreneurial in a long time.

So, you need a plan:

  1. What will you do to blow people away? Online.
  2. What will you do to deliver that? I recommend Twitch but if you argue with that you better come up with a channel.
  3. How will you minimize distractions? I say every conference team needs one page, one URL, one name so you can find it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. One stream. Trying to do more will distract both you and your audience. Prove you can do one this year. Then next year maybe you can do two or more.
  4. How will you fill the gap between analog and digital? Are you looking at VR? You should be but many of you will end up throwing it out. Why? Distribution isn’t there. Not enough of your customers have headsets and the forms still aren’t good enough. So, what does that leave you with? Have you looked at Somnium Space? That you can play on computers and on VR headsets. Or, something like Second Life, which does something similar, but only on computers. Even these, though, will get discarded by most. Why? Too much friction. Getting new users in is hard. Which is why I recommend Twitch. Stick with a form everyone knows. Today. That’s TV.
  5. Do you have a plan for making great TV? This is why I recommend thinking of Beyonce. She makes great TV. So, can’t afford her? Then you better be creative. But some things you will be measured on: can you change the picture every few seconds. This is why the Super Bowl brings dozens of cameras and switches rapidly between them. Can you get the audience to also change? This is why you need new topics every few minutes and new guests. There are plenty of other ways to do entertaining TV that don’t require spending a million or two on Beyonce but they require creativity and connections.
  6. Do you have a plan for production values? One of these conference people said: “think about Master Class.” Yes, please do. Do you realize they spend something like a quarter million dollars PER HOUR on their production values? So, yeah, you wanna go there, go there but have a budget and tell your teams that you have that budget. Most of the rest of us don’t have that kind of budget, so you better figure out how much production values you are able to afford and then find teams that can get you the best possible for that budget.

If I were working for Burning Man I wouldn’t talk about any of this up front, although it should already be on everyone’s mind, though.

I would start with a simple question: what is the story you want to tell?

Neil Young taught me that too. That great music, whether in analog or digital, starts with a great story. The rest is just trying to close the gap.

I leave you with a video that Trey Ratcliff just posted (he’s gone to Burning Man, and has traveled more than most human beings making these videos):