The three sceptics of the apocalypse

Scepticism, questioning, and an ever-present gnawing uncertainty whether what Them In Power tell us is the case actually is the case – these are three hallmarks of we three Podnosticators at the Small Data Forum. And these three qualities are all present in abundant spades as we enter our fourth, quarter-century of podcasts in fresh-minted episode 76.

We gather in what the British press term ‘silly season’ – in Germany Sauregurkenzeit (“sour gherkin time”), Thomas tells us – and in the hours before we gathered, President Putin had cried crocodile tears over the mysterious downing of a private jet carrying disgraced Wagner mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin; a talented man” who “made serious mistakes”, pace Vlad in full-on Marc Antony mode.

And increasingly disgraced former (and future?) President Trump had his mugshot taken (yet another first) at the notorious Fulton County jail, his fourth criminal indictment in a growing litany of disgrace, this one for “just wanting to find 11,780 votes” and gerrymander the 2020 US Election.

Silly season indeed.

Sweary marketing prof nails it – again!

Scott Galloway

Sam starts off with an edited highlights package of NYU marketing professor, Scott Galloway’s, latest observations and predictions on the present and future of tech. Although his talk on a boat owned by plutocrat Richard Branson took place back in May, his 147-slide romp through so much that is wrong (and right) in the world today has generated real traction on LinkedIn in recent weeks. And it particularly piqued author Sam’s interest because of his claim that “the narrative is more important than the numbers”. More soon.

Galloway focuses on the success of luxury brands – with Hermes’ market capitalisation now greater than that of Nike – as the illusion of scarcity has been so-successfully deployed with the top 0.1%. It’s not 5* but 7*, £7,000-a-night hotels that are driving success in the holiday business.

He also reflects that many of those businesses that have succeeded in stellar terms in recent years are those that have built time-reclaiming machines: Amazon (days back not shopping), Netflix (days back not watching ads), and Tesla (days back not having to go to hideous gas [petrol] stations).

As we Podnosticators focus on the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life, Sam is particularly interested in Galloway’s hacks vs flacks calculation.

In the past 20 years, the number of journalists has plummeted by 50%, while the corporate PR / investor relations / comms community has increased six-fold. “The ratio of bullshit to journalism has gone the wrong way, 12x,” he concludes, echoing Guardian legend Nick Davies’ observations in 2008’s Flat Earth News.

As Thomas reflects, this is nothing new, reminding us – as often – of the malign influence of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, from the 19-teens onwards.

Narrative > Numbers or Narrative by Numbers?

Galloway has a similar low regard of Meta as most (if not all) of the Podnosticators, calling the company leaders “mendacious fucks”, and reports that the company’s total global PR machine now outnumbers all journalists on The Washington Post by a factor of 2:1. Two decades ago, Galloway shows, three in four companies moving to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) were profitable; today, it’s only one in four.

The job of the CEO is to be a great storyteller – and to Neville ‘twas ever thus – and this is nowhere more manifest than in talking up companies for IPOs with no route to profit.

Yes, it clearly is Sauregurkenzeit.


Thomas enjoyed Galloway, too, though there are elements of this “complex character” he finds distasteful, from flaunting the ‘gun show’ in his late-50s too-tight t-shirt to boasting casually about his wealth, gross 17% tax rate, and his family’s lack of need for medical insurance (because he’s so rich).

But his observations about the careless, amoral nature of much of capitalism sends Thomas off into a reverie about the Sackler x OxyContin tale of destruction as told in the must-watch Painkiller. Note: you’ll never be able to think of Ferris Bueller in the same way again …

W(h)ither AI?

Galloway is optimistic about AI, and uses the number of articles in academic journals about the topic as a proxy for business potential. He uses a neat analogy of 18 years of growth in the mobile telephony market, now in a downturn in terms of both revenue and academic papers, as a comparator.

The sweary marketing prof – so much more sparing and therefore effective in his expletives than Australobrit maaaaaaaarketing don, Mark Ritson – sees great opportunities for AI in both healthcare and travel.

Neville reads the runes on where we are with AI, just nine months into the ChatGPT era, picking through the lines of an excellent – if derivative – piece from the Financial Times focused on the investment potential of the market titled ‘The sceptical case on generative AI’.

The opening salvo in John Thornhill’s thought-provoking article sets the tone: “Even by the breathless standards of previous technology hype cycles, the generative artificial intelligence enthusiasts have been hyperventilating hard.”

Our resident CTO (that’s Neville) is making a lot of use of both ChatGPT and Claude – “a true, chatty chatbot” – as his research assistants, though he concedes that they don’t always work very well, there are no killer apps yet, and its confabulatory (hallucinatory (downright mendacious?)) nature is definitely more of a feature or a consequence than ‘just a bug’ as many (on the inside) claim.

Hype cycle peak

Gartner hype cycle: peak of inflated expectations

With some caveats, Neville cites Gartner’s Hype Cycle – pinpointing technology across five eras since 2006 – as sitting at point two: “the peak of inflated expectations”. Gartner says generative AI has between two and five years to reach “the plateau of productivity” (Why do these stages all sound like remote outposts in Tolkien? Ed.).

Neville’s advice is to not only read comments or threads about AI, but also get out there and experiment. Sound advice indeed.

Thomas believes there’s something fishy in the fact that all the field workers who’ve developed AI are – by necessity – replete with engineering mindsets, and it sticks in his craw that it’s all about the money (money, money).

Sam blogged back in January that ChatGPT etc. were excellent as well-monitored / verified sorcerers’ apprentices, endlessly willing interns. He cites the much-better-than-humans scores that AI customer satisfaction chatbots can and are delivering for businesses, and at scale, and that all technological advances – from books onwards – represent artificial intelligence. Those that thrive solve problems quicker and more efficiently than we mere mortals.

Not for the first time, he challenges Neville’s assertion that generative AI can produce “genuine art”. Fresh from a viewing of Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis – the tale of Storm Thorgenson and his creative partner, Aubrey Powell, THE Echt album cover artists of the 1960s-1980s par excellence – he gets caught in his own prog rock reverie, though with a purpose. Despite Midjourney being able to produce amazing, apparently original images, these – for Sam – will never pass muster as art as humans make it.

We agree to disagree. Doubtless having had both parents and step-parents – not to mention numerous half- and step-siblings as artists as Sam did doesn’t help.

Many things rotten in the state of sport

Spain squad 2023 Women's World Cup (photo via FIFA)

With Galloway running through episode 76 like letters through a stick of Brighton Rock, Thomas segues from the opportunities in AI to all that’s wrong in sport. Some highlights.

1. Sportswashing and the use of the $500bn Saudi sovereign wealth fund to buy world sports, from football to golf, and many more to follow, from Newcastle United to the LIV tour, blowing the PGA out of the water. The petrodollar Death Star (aka Manchester City) show no signs of slowing down.

2. The immorality tale of Manchester United and star striker, Mason Greenwood, NOT cleared of violent and coercive control over a girlfriend as he and the club suggested this week, just the charges dropped. The tale says as much about the culture enabled (if not actively encouraged) by the game and the club as it does of the individuals involved. Yanited Superfan Rachel Riley’s intervention on The News Agents podcast was eloquent, notable, and entirely deserved.

3. The 50-100x differential in salaries, prize money, and transfer fees between the men’s and women’s game. Arsenal were prepared to pay a world record fee of £500K for Alessia Russio from the aforementioned United, a sum that would have bought only half a Trevor Francis in 1979, and only 1/230th of a Moisés Caicedo earlier this month, in his move from Brighton to Chelsea.

Injured England Women’s skipper, Leah Williamson, was the highest-paid professional woman player last year, pocketing £200K. Petro-dollar death star’s Kevin De Bruyne? £20m. Harry Kane gets more than two years of Williamson’s salary every week (£415K) from new owners, Bayern Munich.

Financial fair play? We don’t think so. Though it’s not impossible to harmonise rewards, as tennis has – albeit reluctantly – shown on the Grand Slam circuit.

4. Nike’s failure to even make replica shirts of England World Cup finalist goalkeeper Mary “Queen of Stops” Earps – winner of the tournament’s Golden Gloves. They only backed down very reluctantly, agreeing to make only a limited number of shirts.

5. Thiefa – sorry, FIFA – President Gianni Infantino’s infantile, gaslighting speech at the Women’s World Cup, saying that women just need to “push the doors” and that they have the “power to convince us men”. Really, Gianni?

6. The actions of the Spanish FA president, Luis Rubiales, forcing an unsolicited kiss on the lips of World Cup winning star, Jenni Hermoso, in the ‘celebration’ of his team’s victory. Not to mention grabbing his crotch and Doing the Timewarp … next to the Queen of Spain and her daughter. The only crumb of good news as we record is that Rubiales will have resigned or been sacked by the time you read these show notes / listen to the pod.

7. Gambling.

It’s enough to make you stop watching football – particularly the men’s elite game. Something that Sam is seriously considering, and Thomas may not be that far behind.

Listen to episode 76:

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