Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Weekday Newsletter

Episode One Hundred and Sixty Three: What The Network Does; How Do You Solve A Problem Like TED; Not A Career, A Careen

0.0 Sitrep

3:28pm, inside at home with what The Wirecutter calls The Best Room Fan busy, well, fanning me. It’s still hot in Portland, even now that XOXO’s finished. The sun is still outside, sleeting down hard UV dispassionately, killing us with warmth. There are two spots on my hand I should probably go see a doctor about. My wife and son are off on a Camping Trip, a big American tradition. Nine mums and their babies! I am here with a laptop, writing, and trying to work out how to finish the remaining 23% I have of Fez, and not playing Destiny (yet).

1.0 What The Network Does

Imagine you are the network. You are nodes and connectors, and some of the nodes make graphs of you. There are laws about you, and some of the numbers embedded within you grow exponentially, some of them more slowly. But there is one true thing about you: you connect things. Things that weren’t able to be connected before. Things around corners. Things in the sky. Things underground. Through glass and through sand, through copper and through air. And sometimes those nodes are people.

You don’t care what you connect, all you do, what you only do is connect. So you connect individuals and you collect groups, you connect subnetworks and outernetworks. Darknets and lightnets. And one network that you connect, one that wasn’t connected before, is people who play chess.

There didn’t used to be that many chess grandmasters. But lately, there’s been an explosion. And they keep getting younger. Why is that? Well, to get better at a thing, you have to practice. You need something better than you to try to beat. You need something to outwit. And now, well, there are grandmasters-in-a-box. In a browser. In Javascript. Embodied in silicon and plastic and out in the real world, or displayed in a windowing system. So now: anyone who wants to play a grandmaster level competitor can play one. It’s, more or less, trivial to find a grandmaster. You don’t even have to travel, if you’re lucky.

And then: you can play anyone else on the network. Would you like to play a game? Anyone. And the network keeps getting bigger, because it doesn’t care. You can be a grandmaster at 16, 15, 14, 13, 12 years old now. Keep finding people to play.

And then what?

The best, they play like computers. They don’t get annoyed. They don’t get upset. The board is a problem set and a solution space and you find the best path. Getting annoyed doesn’t help you find the best path. You play so you can beat computers, so you start behaving like one. The best can perform at the extremes: do things in a way that we don’t understand, see things in a way that a computer brute-forces its way through.

That’s a thing that the network does. It connects.

(Thanks to Greg Borenstein for exploding my brain and being the ignition point for the above).

2.0 How Do You Solve A Problem Like TED

There was a thing I noticed about XOXO this year which was that at its best, it was – like I said yesterday – sincere, authentic and vulnerable accounts of what it’s like to be a creative person embedded in the network. This meant everything from a recognition that luck plays a big part, no matter how hard you’ve worked, or how much time you’ve put in – Darius Kazemi gave a good example of this, showing how bots that he came up with and implemented in four hours would frequently be more “successful” in terms of followers and recognition than ones that took forty hours to implement. Though he might *like* the ones that were harder more. Recognition, we understand, is a fickle thing.

But it also meant hearing from people who – from the outside, when you see their surface, and not their interior – look *incredibly* successful. You know the saying: you judge people on their outsides and yourself on your insides. So it felt like even whilst there were people who were literally saying “this is difficult, and hopefully I don’t have to tap into my savings this year, and the only reason why I can travel so much is because I airbnb out my apartment and I stay on peoples’ couches when I travel” they *felt* successful.

I think there’s a Kahneman-style System 1 vs System 2 thing going on here: that when we see someone who’s good at public speaking, who can tell an engaging story and retain our attention, who entertains us and looks like they’re enjoying we think: gosh, that person’s *successful* and they must really, really have their shit together. This, despite the fact that if you listen to the words coming out of their mouths, they’re trying to tell you that they desperately *don’t* and that this stuff is just *happening*. We are pattern recognisers, and the physical morphology of a successful person on-stage at a conference doing a presentation or talk is a powerful thing, I think: it hacks into some sort of brain-stem system and bypasses whatever conscious understanding we have of their verbal communication.

I say this because one of the persistent valuable lessons of XOXO has been people talking about the *reality* of their situation. Joseph Fink would talk about Welcome to Nightvale and describe it as “a bunch of people who did a podcast” and that it is now “a bunch of people who do a podcast”. The sheer number of underpants-gnomes-profit references underscores that most people have no idea *why* something has happened, but what XOXO brings is what it *feels like* to grapple with those things and *how* to grapple with those things when they happen. XOXO has never been about a Get Rich Quick, Follow These Ten Tips To Become Successful thing. It’s been about what the human experience and endeavour of creating and failing and succeeding and failing and endlessly repeating and the terror and elation and highs and lows of that are. That’s why it resonates with me.

So I wonder if the conventional three/ten/fifteen/twenty minute talk is a good way – or, for that matter, even the only way – in which to communicate that kind of understanding. I really, really enjoy one-on-one mentoring sessions because they’re *not* a performance. A successful performance doesn’t mean a successful person – it just means a successful performance. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.

3.0 Not A Career, A Careen

I wrote yesterday that it feels like I don’t have a career, I have a careen. The trajectory of my life so far has been less about a carefully described Newtonian arc in some sort of Standard Model of Life Experience and instead feels like a virtual particle in a quantum vacuum with some additional Brownian motion thrown in. In other words: shit happens.

I would get asked by people sometimes: do you have any advice about getting into an agency like Wieden+Kennedy? And I would say: well, I don’t really think what I did was replicable. I mean sure, you can go study law at a good school and then qualify and then do a master’s in Software Engineering and then do a couple of startups and get noticed and win some awards, but if I’m honest most of the *other* people in that agency went to Advertising School.

And I don’t necessarily think it was something as facile as “making your own luck”, but there’s possibly one thing that I’d point to which is: I like talking to people. And I know a bunch of people in a bunch of different areas, and I’m interested in what they do, and I try to know about what they do. If things work out right, I’m about to embark on what by some accounts might be a fourth career. The first was trying out being a lawyer (interesting, but ultimately boring when it came down to the nuts and bolts of it), the second one was in startups (learned a lot, probably will want to start a new business again at some point, but not the right time for my family), the third in advertising (it ended up being advertising, which I’m interested in but don’t want to make) and the fourth… well, we’ll see.

I can’t point to a common thread through any of those things other than this bundle of water and meat that’s me. Any reasonable person – any *typical person* would say: well, couldn’t you just pick one thing and stick to it? Couldn’t you just get better at that?

The thing is, though, is that’s what the network did to me. The network put all this stuff in front of me and said: connect here. Click here. Join this to that bit. Make a new connection. Fulfill your part of Metcalfe’s Law. Only at the beginning was the law stuff *absolutely nothing* to do with the network. Everything after that was: what am I interested in? What am I doing now? Who can I do it with? Do they want me to do it?

Kevin Kelly would say: this is what the network does. It invents new ways for you to succeed. You still have to, you know, take advantage of them. I mean, I spoke at a *design* conference for the first time this year and for whatever reason, I’m pretty confident that I’m not a Capital D Designer. I was interviewing just a couple months ago for a Design Director position, and still. But it was just because of the stuff that I was interested in and the network just… provided.

This isn’t some Secret bullshit. But I think it turns out that most humans are actually pretty decent people and want to help other people. And this, this stupid thing of a newsletter, where I just spurt out words every day, has at least helped people understand me and who I am and what I’m interested in and can form their own opinion about what I might be good at.

The flipside of this of course is that in the grand scheme of things I’m so stupendously privileged that it doesn’t bear thinking about. The elder son of immigrant parents from Hong Kong to England in the late 1970s, I ended up growing up in a middle class family and going to one of the top schools in the country. I took a paper boy job once and chucked it in because I didn’t – couldn’t – get up in the morning and face the drudgery. Instead, I’d temp in the summers between school years and, basically, type, and earn the ire of other admin assistants who didn’t type at 90-odd words a minute because their parents or families didn’t start them on a computer when they were three years old.

I’m stupidly lucky.

So, when I ask myself, how did I *really* get this far? Yeah, it was pretty much privilege.

The thing about those who’ve climbed the ladder having a responsibility to give a hand up? Yeah, that. Absolutely, unconditionally, that.

4pm. Pretty much 30 minutes of writing on the dot. See you tomorrow.

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Sixty Two: The Difficult Third Album

0.0 Sitrep

11:03pm on a Monday, the Monday after the three-day XOXO Festival. Very tired.

1.0 The Difficult Third Album

This is the third year I’ve been to XOXO[1], the self-billed “experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology,” put on by Andys McMillan[2] and Baio[3]. I think a good description of XOXO is that it celebrates network culture – that is, culture that only exists *because* of the network. That covers everything from Welcome to Nightvale, to John Gruber’s Daring Fireball from Paul Ford’s writing to data-driven jewellery from Rachel Binx, from Darius Kazemi’s Twitter bots to Anita Sarkeesian’s crowd-funded investigation of tropes used in media depictions of women. Some of these might not be classed as art – at least, not by snooty proper-art-artists – and some of these aren’t necessarily technology-technology, but the one thing that they do have in common is that they are embedded in, and part of, networked culture.

There was a lot to like about this year’s festival. It had a distinctly different feel to last year, though, but the same thread ran through. The Andys have endeavoured to try to produce something that’s trying to open up the Overton Window[4] of possibilities for tech-related conferences: that is, something that’s about the people and the humanity in technology and not solely focussed on the mechanics. Last year was a deeply personal experience: something brimming over in authenticity and sincerity, in honesty and vulnerability that you rarely, if ever, get at conferences like SXSW or TechCrunch Disrupt or a Mashable event. This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, it’s a place to focus on what it’s like to be a human being, a person, creating stuff in a networked world that allows for an explosion in certain kinds of human contact.

So it was interesting this year to see Kevin Kelly, of all people, saying that perhaps there were multiple measures of success. That the California Ideology-esque VC model of a *startup* – ie a business that grows *incredibly quickly* is not the only model or mode of success for what you want to do in life. You might not understand why this is a big deal: Kelly is the closest thing that we have to one of the grandfathers of internet libertarian-esque culture. When someone like Kelly says that perhaps we should look at models other than the VC model of build-fast-and-large, then you’d hope that people elsewhere are going to take notice, too. He illustrated his point well, pretty much using r/K selection theory[6]. Some species “succeed” by having hundreds, thousands of offspring to ensure “success”. Others only produce a few offspring and invest in quality, rather than quantity. Neither of them are wrong. Both of them succeed in the goal of bringing about another generation: they would do, otherwise we wouldn’t see evidence of them as successful reproductive strategies.

Kelly had a compelling argument for the whole “software will eat the world, but everything will be OK” position. Generally, it’s that whilst software will eat the world, we’ve historically been good at coming up with new jobs that aren’t yet eaten by software that we can do whilst the software catches up. This is the sort of position that people like Andy Kessler take, and sometimes to extremes. To me, this all feels well and good if you posit that we have a good enough social security net to allow people to essentially context-switch and, you know, get new jobs when their old ones get eaten.

Kelly’s example was of the enabling and empowering aspects of technology. He talked about how on his own, or through distributed networks and software, one person could create a five pounds-in-weight magazine that would otherwise take thirty people a month to do. Which, you know, is great. But right now, our society’s not constructed in a way that produces people who are empowered to discover what they’re good at, or want to do, and be entrepreneurial about it. We’re mired with an education system and a cultural environment that still fetishises and shows an industrial era of interchangeable human parts that are resources, fulfilling roles in the Organisation. In Kelly’s future, there is no Organisation, there are merely fluid overlays and groups of people, everyone trying to do their own thing, to find their own audience, cobbling together a living.

I can’t necessarily disagree with what Kelly’s saying. My own career is a mess. It’s not even a career. It is a careening from one thing to another. What irks me is when companies like Uber take that software-eating-jobs position and then distort it into a “we’re providing jobs” message. That’s not fulfilment. That’s not helping people succeed. It’s meat-puppetry.

This turned out to be a theme that other speakers would explore too. Gina Trapani would talk about how living and working in New York during 9/11 would change her and her attitude to time so that you coudl trace a line back to that event from what she would later do with lifehacker, and then later with ThinkUp. We would hear a collection of stories about people – individuals, each of them – trying to eke out some sort of meaning and asking the hardest of questions, the ones that can’t be answered for you but can only be done through what’s actually *work*: what is it that you *want to do*?

We’d hear from people lucky enough to already know: people like Golan Levin[8], who by all accounts can’t *help* but educate people and teach them the things he’s learned, even when he’s trying to run a Kickstarter in the Neo Lucida project[9] to prove a teachable moment to his class about how the Old Masters might have “cheated” in using mechanical aids to help the draw.

But most of us don’t. Most of us don’t get a chance to figure it out, or for whatever psychological or environmental reason have a block.

For me, one of the surprise outstanding talks was from Hank Green[10]. Now, I have a bad internal bias against vloggers. For whatever reason, I just don’t get them. Which is a particularly unfair thing, as it’s more a reaction to the medium than it is the person. But at the same time, I’m quite happy to say that I don’t “get” Ze Frank, for example. This happened last year when I didn’t know the slightest about Mike Rugnetta[11], and his talk[12] was the one that blew me away and did something weird to my brain. But I digress.

Hank’s thing was treading the well-worn path of telling you to fuck your dreams because, hey, your dreams are unrealistic. Well, they’re not unrealistic. But they’re just suggestions. And that you don’t owe any obligation to your former self: they literally don’t exist anymore. But this is the hard part: if you’re trying to work out what it is that you *want* to do, then you kind of have to try a whole bunch of things out. Our education system and culture and economy isn’t set up to do that. We aren’t set up to let people a/b test a whole bunch of vocations or careers. We haven’t built up a society that enables and empowers people to work out what’s best, because hey, we’ve got bills to pay all the time. And if you haven’t noticed, all of this technology that empowers people and enables new forms of success *costs money*.

XOXO for me has always been about the human side of technology. It’s been a space to get away from growth hacking and APIs and arguments about whether you should be using Ruby or Python or Go, where there are earnest discussions about vim versus emacs. It’s been more about why you want to make what you want to make, rather than how you want to make it. So by definition, the better parts for me have been the more authentic, the more vulnerable, the more sincere, because that’s a side that we rarely address in technology. That unless you’re talking about a conference for machine learners – not the ones coding the machine learning – then technology is a human artifact made by people who put blood, sweat and tears into the damn things.

I have so many friends whom I respect, who are insanely talented at what they do. And yet I’m finding increasing evidence that it’s the *majority* of them, not the minority, that are still incredibly insecure about themselves. I make jokes about this myself. I tweet, semi-facetiously, that over 1,500 people subscribe to this newsletter and they can’t all be wrong. I mean, they’ve – you’ve – decided to get what I write, and I’m just splurging this stuff out. When I’m rubber-duck debugging my internal mental state with my therapist, I say to her: well, how can I disagree with 1,500 people, most of whom I’ve never met? When I’m making clear to most of those readers that all they’re getting is the random noise from a bunch of neurons that’s spewing out words onto a page. There is literally nothing that distinguishes me here, and yet they decide that it’s still worth following. So she looks at me, expectantly, waiting for me to finish the train of thought and get to where she’s trying to get me: so, what, I have inherent worth?

There was a conversation I had over lunch with Greg Borenstein – you should try his tinyletter[13], too, if only because he’s almost comically smart – that spilled over into conversations with other people. That I don’t want to live in a world that’s been eaten by software. At least, not yet. Because software is binary, and we’re fuzzy and that we’re so, so not very good at capturing nuance. We just don’t fit in database records right now, NOSQL or not. A good example, and I’m totally stealing this from a conversation I had with Manar Hussain[14], is that, generally speaking, our legal systems are set up on the premise that it was either impossible, or incredibly expensive, to Pokemon-style catch everyone. Society is built around catching *most* people. But hey, we can nearly do that now. Or we can definitely do it for some things. Algorithms and our best “artificial” intelligence aren’t fuzzy and don’t do-what-I-mean and set their own goals and go fetch a mug instead of a glass or anything else that can be used as a drinking container when I say “get me a glass” and there aren’t any glasses.

So, this is what XOXO does, or at least tries to do, for me. It tries to be the other voice, pushing that window slightly in the other direction, and reminds us that we’re the people who’re making stuff. That it’s *people* who are making stuff, and invariably for other people. Sure, it sounds a bit group-huggy at times, and especially so from the outside. But it’s doing a valuable thing.

[1] http://2014.xoxofest.com
[2] Andy McMillan
[3] Andy Baio
[4] Overton Window – Wikipedia
[5] Kevin Kelly – kk.org
[6] r/K selectors – Wikipedia
[7] Gina Trapani
[8] Golan Levin
[9] Neo Lucida
[10] Hank Green
[11] Mike Rugnetta
[12] Mike Rugnetta, Idea Channel – XOXO Festival (2013)
[13] Smithereens – Greg Borenstein
[14] Manar Hussain

Normal service resumes tomorrow.

(I’ve always wanted to write that).

Best,

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Sixty One: Ecks Oh, Ecks Oh; Just In Time

0.0 Sitrep

The first day of XOXO – the Social part. 8:06pm, at home, not being DJ’d to by Anil Dash. My turn – by choice – with our son tonight. A quite night. Tomorrow will be brain exploding.

1.0 Ecks Oh, Ecks Oh

There’s a certain kind of person who gets to see their friends at conferences, despite living in the same town, city or country as them. This would normally happen with something like a conference (uh, “festival”) like South by Southwest, where a horde of Brits would descend upon Austin for Interactive and actually get to spend time with one another, rather than having to schedule meetings or traipse north or south of the river for the bi-annual brunch.

Three years in, XOXO is a bit like that. I’m lucky to have gotten in – each attendee is vetted by the Andys McMillan and Baio, a sort of Metafilter-esque human-powered conference Eye of Sauron to whom if you’re on the wrong side of the fence it looks like an in-club or a clique, and if you’re on the other side, you look at everyone else and feel like you have imposter syndrome. The truth isn’t so much somewhere in between, but that the Andys are trying to curate (such a word) a different kind of festival/conference experience, one that’s, shall we say, less Brand Heavy.

So XOXO is that time of the year in early September when friends come to Portland, when our house becomes a halfway house for those whose souls are stuck in some kind of Gibsonian-jetlag, strung out across the Atlantic, or, increasingly, just popped up from San Francisco for the weekend. And finally, a new kind of feeling: there was a dance I used to do when meeting people whom I’d only “met” online, but a different kind of meeting: the kind where you knew quite a lot about that person, and they knew quite a lot about you and you had to pretend that you didn’t know each other, the first time you met in person. Or you had to pretend that you didn’t know the thing that you obviously did know, because it had been shared in whatever social space.

Less of that now: less of that “if you didn’t explicitly tell me, I don’t know” and a more comfortable feeling of: well, you talk about this thing on the internet, and we both know that, so let’s just assume we know. A more pleasant let’s start this as if we’re on a rolling start, not on a tricky hill start, and just lapse into conversation. Less of the pretense, more of the getting on with it. More of the acknowleding that this is a little of what friendship is nowadays. That you can know things about people – and they can be comfortable with that – without having been explicitly told.

That clash of friends: that “so, how are you?” when we all know that we’ve been reading each others statuses. That “what are you doing now?” and the really, really hard work of being sociable and, with a certain group of friends, knowing that you can just sit in a room or a corner and just be quiet together.

2.0 Just In Time

The right thing, at the wrong time, by the people who spotted the right thing and just got too excited about it, too early. We were talking about Slack today, and the Butterfield/Henderson ability to make something whimsical and accidentally find something valuable and interesting out of it. Two for two now, more or less, so one more success and before you know it you’re going to have articles exhorting the combination of stupendously talented developer who’s also got a penchant for shorts and Lego, and whimsical Canadian product manager and designer. But I want to go back to the thing about Slack and IRC – that Slack was essentially the best bits about IRC and then all the techiness, all the stuff around netsplits, all the stuff around double-clicking or right-clicking on a username and seeing what server they’re logged in on and whoising them – all of that stuff, and just getting rid of the cruft and focusing on the value of what IRC delivered to users. Rolling it out group by group and doing it in that Enterprise-y way? Pretty interesting too, if only because there’s one other social network that did such a roll out, organisation by organisation, and they turned out to end up with over a billion users.

There was a post going around a while back – the idea that all the tiny Unix utilities were being unbundled and made consumer-friendly, turned into apps or whatever. You know, you had new web versions of grep or cvs or talk or ircd or elm. It was a bit simplistic for my taste: it wasn’t an analogy that worked, more of a “hey, isn’t this interesting, things that do things continue to be useful in new ways”.

But it takes a special kind of person – or a way of looking at things – to see something like IRC and go: hey, I bet more people would use that if it were crafted a different way. Made a different way. Lots of Slack is, more or less, and naively, a solved problem. The attention to detail is in the execution. The idea – group chat for a whole bunch of people with automation hooks – isn’t a new one. The way it’s been built, and the way people take to it, that’s a big game changer.

The problem is when you can see these things and you get excited and you try to build them and all that you’ve done wrong, the only reason why you didn’t succeed is because you were just too early. We fetishize the new in the land of technology, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a new enabling technology, and a new thing that’s just new. For a while, it looked like the jury was out on WebGL. It may well still be. But the first thing that people would do would be clones of Elite, or whatever. David Braben’s finally bringing pretty much the original vision of Elite back to life with Elite: Dangerous, and it looks fucking awesome. Same idea. Later execution. Different effects. Networks, graphics – all so much better, and now the execution can be different and can be better in a way that seems an order of magnitude better.

Consider Yahoo’s early work on Fire Eagle, a location broker that would enable trusted access to location that solved a problem that would be needed to solved now, a good six years after it was launched in 2008. Kind-of done at the OS level now, in a way that couldn’t really be anticipated back in 2008, but a bold attempt nonetheless, and probably something that could be done even more properly now.

We like building the new thing on the new framework using the new way. When a lot of the time, it turns out that the need was pretty original. I think what’s obscured a lot of the time is that what was successful in the early days of the internet – like chat – are things that are always successful. They can just reach even more people now. And – he says, banging his drum – understand your audience and your users. Empathise with them.

I’ll be at XOXO all day tomorrow. Impromptu newsletter meetup at 12pm. Send me notes, give me hugs, all that sort of stuff.

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Sixty: After All; 2014 (7)

0.0 Sitrep

My wife and I have two pieces of slang that we use around the house: the first, over text message, is invariably SITREP when one of us is looking after our son. How’s everything going? Has he pooped? Is he awake? Has he gone to sleep? What has he broken? Was it his limb, or someone else’s limb? The other one is *babby* – a stupid reference to the infamous Yahoo! Answers Question, How Is Babby Formed. Babby, in this case, is the one who’s just done a gigantic poo, finally.

1.0 After All

It’s easy to poke fun and stuff and easy to rail at things that other people do and put out into the world. I could try, but in the end I wouldn’t be able to top this quote from Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.”

It’s hard to do, to be a friend to the new. At the old job, the culture was that as a creative director, you had to protect fledgling ideas. They were too frail, too easily bent or broken or challenged at the early stages to survive out in the world. That’s why the entire creative department had to sit on its own floor, why strategists and planners and account people weren’t invited to creative reviews and if they were, had strict instructions to be seen but not heard.

I would like to believe – I think we don’t really have a choice but to believe – that most people, most of the time, have good intentions at heart. And that it can be the state of the world and the environment that grinds us down, because how else are you supposed to react to an indifferent universe? There’s good stuff out there, and whilst it’s not like there’s a duty to be optimistic and kind to the things happening in the world, perhaps we need to be – or I need to be – to help the things we want to happen, happen.

So, I’m going to try again. The new stuff. The stuff that makes us feel excited, *should* make us feel excited. That is an achievement and whilst it might not be completely there yet, is still pushing us in the right direction and is taking us forward. Is better, and can be made better. That stuff.

2.0 2014 (7)

Hundreds of thousands of sensors monitor the sleeping patterns of people worldwide, allowing a private company to pinpoint the exact second that an earthquake roused people in Napa, California. We see 3D data regularly depicted as LIDAR point-clouds and voxels, we use pixelated models more than ever before to interpret our surroundings. Millions of people have watched a goldfish play videogames, live on the internet. We can make images of objects using less than one photon per pixel. There are at least thirteen active robotic solar system missions. American Football players committing domestic violence, witnessed by surveillance camera, are ex-post-facto removed from popular videogames. There are now nine documented cases of people who have lived without a cerebellum. Scales that measure your weight and are connected to the internet geolocate themselves, accounting for fluctuations in gravity around the planet. A citizen science project has found evidence that humans can gain the ability to see into the near infrared just by eating lots of vitamin A2.

12:10am. iPhone 6’d up. I am a puppet, pull my strings.

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Fifty Nine: She Who Wears The Digital Crown; Designing Community

0.0 Station Ident

12pm on a Sunny Wednesday. Portland is putting on its glad rags for the just-over-a-thousand arriving for annual indie hug-fest XOXO, I’m sitting in a deli thinking to myself: why, with what Apple launched yesterday pundits can keep themselves in business for *years*. It’s enough to make you change your name to Lunkwill or Fook and get on that gravy train. And yes, it’s a bit like Apple-watching is a certain kind of Kremlinology, or the new kind of Kremlinology, but so. Apple is only just a little bit of what’s happening, and as a friend remarked the other day, “it is a miserable tiny future that a small number of men in a corner of California plot.”[1]

An attention-bound species, only able to shine a light onto one thing at a time, a giant searchlight of this-is-the-thing-that-matters. False, of course – just a story to explain a particular point of view. Lots of other stuff going on. Always lots of other stuff going on.

[1] https://twitter.com/moleitau/status/509544905694515200

1.0 She Who Wears The Digital Crown

I knew what I’d do with a better personal music player. All of my music, everywhere! Well, at the time, it was all of my music. I knew what I’d do with a better phone, too: all that stuff that I wanted to do with a Nokia or Palm at the time, but had to jab ineffectively at the capacitive touch-screen to do. Or navigate through frankly abusive menus to accomplish simple tasks. Or set things like Access Point Names.

I’m not sure what I’d do with a WATCH, though. That’s not to say that there *aren’t* things to do with that watch, but I go back to what the story is about this thing. Tom Armitage sent an interesting note – after going through Ive’s Ivesplaining of what the new thing does, he had a different take on the repetition of the 50-millisecond accuracy. To which all of us geeks say: well, I should bloody hope so, it’s a fucking *computer* connected to the internet. But to everyone else, to people perhaps less literate in things like clock slew and network time protocol, a watch that’s accurate is a good thing, and the kind of thing that people who’re into watches talk about. So Armitage’s observation was: look at the breadth of this thing. Who’s it for? Watch people! But not just watch people. App people too! And health and fitness people!

Ben Thompson has beat me to the punch here in a great article[1] at his Stratechery site. He asks essentially the same questions: in all of Apple’s recent product introductions – ones that brought the company into new categories – they’ve done a great job of persuading you why you need it. Why you need the iPhone, the iPod or the iPad. The market might not have been large enough or ready yet, certainly in the case of the iPod and the iPhone, but it got there, because there existed the fulfilment of a genuine need.

I’m aware of adventuring into the whole you-can’t-say-what-Steve-Jobs-would-have-done-territory, and it’s possible to pretty much pull out any anecdote that will back whatever position you want to take (he took forever to buy a washing machine, questioned what they were even for and what they were supposed to do, ditto furniture) or even the counter-indication (the Flower Power iMac G3, still).

But, you know. They’ve been working on this “for three years” and, well, Steve died around three years ago. And everyone knows you’re supposed to do *something* with a wearable. And sure, Apple have done it, kind of, on their own terms. As much attention to design and fashion – and bets are already coming in on the inevitable high price of the fashion EDITION pieces – as to the user interface. Ish. I mean, it’s not bad. But does it fill what you recognise to be an aching watch-sized hole in your life? And not even *watch*-sized or shaped, but the whole idea of: there is a thing on my body, that is always on my body (if things work out) and that I can move about with slightly less effort than getting the thing out of my pocket. What kind of things can that thing do, on my wrist, that make sense?

I mean, sure, I *can* look at and reply to email on my wrist. But it felt like Apple would be the kind of company that would take a fairly principled position (whether right or wrong – Jobs would always reserve the right to change his mind in rather obvious ways). Bigger iPhone? Never. Tablet? Never. Smaller tablet? Never.

But, you know, strong opinions, weakly held and all that. And never, ever give away the product roadmap to the competitors. If you can see where the puck’s going, then head straight for it and misdirect all the way.

There are certainly a bunch of interesting things: what are the kinds of things a wrist-mounted always-sensing thing can do? New kinds of gesture recognition? How sensitive are the gyros and accelerometers? The Taptic Engine itself is intriguing if only for the somewhat outlandish thought of a whole new generation of people learning and creating new Morse Codes and a hidden backchannel of information.

[1] Apple WATCH: Asking Why and Saying No – Stratechery, Ben Thompson

2.0 Designing Communities

So it turns out that when we ask “what kind of society do we want to build for ourselves”, some of our leading online communities turn out to have a pretty definitive answer. GoFundMe, a sort-of crowdfunding site has decided to ban fundraising for abortions and “sorcery”[1] but is OK with raising funds for public officials who maybe, just maybe, might have conducted an extra-judicial execution under the guise of “well, I guess he looked black at me.”

A few days ago, CEO of Reddit Yishan Wong stuck his head above the parapet to declare that the site was a sort of Government 2.0[2], and wrote sentences like this: “[we] consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community.”

So it turns out that Government 2.0 is instead not just Responsive Government or Smaller Government but instead a sort of pared-back internet-service government where like karma ranking, weak anonymity and threaded comments. Not anything as substantive as saying that there might be unalienable rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

In Redditland, the worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose karma or you get banned. But that’s okay, because you can always come back, rez in as another pseudonymous individual. The best thing that can happen to you is you can get recognition or Gold, gifted to you by other grateful members of your micro-nation.

On Reddit, each individual, as Yishan says, is responsible for their own moral actions. Curiously, the administrators appear to be above reproach – the equations of utilitarianism don’t apply to them, the fact that they govern and operate systems that affect millions doesn’t figure into *their* personal moral successes or failings.

This isn’t new. I mean, it’s depressing, but I guess it isn’t new. There are certainly wonderful things that happen on Reddit, and a lot of those wonderful things are in spite of the action and tactics that the site’s management have taken. They are less, I think, things that reflect well upon Reddit and instead things that reflect well upon communities of people. For every Reddit thread showing progress in acceptance of trans men or women, there’s another doxxing or abusing. People, I suppose.

The beauty of Reddit, though, and the beauty of at least this part of the internet is the inadvertent transparency. Redditors – and most other people on the internet – are living in the public now. When we see examples of domestic violence ripple through media, when we see misogyny, verbal abuse, bullying, all of the terrible tragic things that we’re capable of, it’s not like they weren’t there before. We can just see them now. What makes us different – if anything does, I suppose – is that when we see things like that, when we see things that we don’t agree with, when we see something in the world that we wish weren’t like that, more often than not we actually have the power to do something about it.

If there’s a compromising middle-ground in Reddit’s position it’s this: yes, it’s better when people do the right thing for the right reasons and understand why, as opposed to doing the right thing because someone else told them to. But to do that is to disregard at the same time a whole bunch of experimental cognitive neuroscience and behavioural psychology research that shows that a lot of the time, we just do what other people are doing. That behaviours can be normalised. That things can be made okay, and you don’t even need to read or agree with Malcolm Gladwell to go along with that.

The difference is one of participation. Reddit is big, and it’s a lightly-moderated site that relies upon devolution of power, of federation. The admins are rare, and it’s frequently a free-for-all. Mods are ground-up grown, and if I’m going to stretch an analogy even further, it’s that Reddit is a playground for kids where the adults hardly ever check in. There aren’t that many good examples. Wong says that Reddit’s *intent* is that they want to teach by example, that they want to highlight the good stuff. You want a good example of that? It’s Metafilter.

Good community management, *raising* a good community, teaching them and helping them discover what’s right and wrong versus just *telling them* (and, you know what, sometimes you *can* just tell people that abuse is wrong and not at the same time have to give up your ideals) is a thankless task that’s akin to parenting.

But the type of site that’s Metafilter, the type of site and community that relied and grew based *upon* that never-ending job of community moderation and parenting has proven, in our current model, to be unsustainable. It’s too expensive. Good moderators, like good teachers, are priceless. And moderation in the internet age is a 24 hour affair. You think it’s exhausting chasing after one toddler. Imagine chasing after thousands of them. Millions of them.

Of course, you could decide to make the environment safer. You could choose to bias it toward good behaviour, whilst not out-right banning or making impossible bad behaviour. You could choose to do all of those things. If, like Wong says, every man is responsible for his own soul.

In the meantime, more sunlight. Gradually, slowly, imperceptibly, even. Maybe not progress as fast as some of us would like. But free speech – whether it exists or is required on Reddit’s platform or not – is helping us understand exactly what communities people want to build on the internet.

[1] GoFundMe, the site that has raised money for convicted murderers, will draw the line at abortion and ‘sorcery’ – Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey
[2] Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul – blog.reddit

XOXO starts tomorrow, opening night party and then the traditional tour of Portland on Friday, then conference on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully I’ll still be writing tomorrow and Friday, and then it’ll be a massive brain splurge next week.

Dan