Episode 40: IP and the Federation; A Thousand Digital Hubs In Your Pocket; Your Server Recommends

by danhon

1.0 IP and the Federation

Look, if Paul Krugman can write a genuine paper about the economic implications of interstellar and relativistic trade[1], then I can use Gene Roddenberry’s toy universe as a sort of gedankenexperiment about intellectual property in a post-scarcity society.

Which is not always the kind of opening paragraph you expect to write, but still.

Over dim sum the other day, the inevitable discussion about what happens when software eats not just the world, but jobs. So bear with me, this is going to be some intense reckoning.

Assume that a bunch of jobs have gone. Assume that unemployment isn’t going to trend downward and is instead slightly trending upward as capital has figured out that it can get a better return on itself through more capital, instead of labour. Assume that the governing classes reckon the only real way to deal with that without formenting some sort of permanent disaffected Youth Spring situation is to institute basic income. Assume that basic income, because it’s basic, can only really pay for basic things, and that what ends up happening is increasing wealth inequality but that instead of things getting worse at the bottom, they just kind of stay steady state thanks to basic income. (That assumption – and picture me as a nineteen year old undergrad at one in the morning slumped in an armchair having a particularly juvenile discussion – feels like the most reckon-y in the chain so far, so I’m happy for it to be demonstrably false).

Then what? You have most of the money at the top and essentially a long, log tail of humans and spending power. How do you claw yourself out of the long tail of basic income?

Are we at the kind of attention economy where, because you’ve got basic income and a more or less safe existence, you can dick around and spend five years experimenting with things until you create Flappy Bird and capture the attention of the people with the Money?

So then is pretty much everyone at the basic income level trying to attract the attention of the monied class? Are billions of people reduced to the monetised version of the attention economy and then sell that attention to the people and organisation who ultimately employ the monied class?

What does *that* mean for the concept of intellectual property?

And (a jump here, so bear with me and apologies) was it software eating the world that led to the post-work and post-scarcity world of the Federation, or was it the replicator? You have a similar situation in the toy universe of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age where Nell’s brother teachers her how to use their [replicator/fab] and nanotech and universal feedstock allows a basic level of existence. That doesn’t stop Miranda, of course, from needing money to play for the implants she needs to train up at being a Ractor to break into the big time and crawl out of the mire.

So wait: in a post-scarcity replicator world of the Federation, the thing that’s still scarce is attention. And, well, if Riker wants to play submissive in the latest Fifty Shades of Grey holonovel sweeping the ship, then a) who writes it and b) how does he get it? If I wrote it, can I decide that anyone can have access to it, other than Riker, just to spite him and his smarmy smile? Is the only implication of that that I’m a dick? Or, does the Federation computing system include stupendously powerful DRM? (Remember that episode where Wesley, Data and Geordi spent forty one minutes circumventing the Trusted Computing Module in the Enterprise’s main computer core and installed an after-market mod to the main deflector dish? That episode was awesome.)

Paul Mison suggested that perhaps the Federation operated on roughly the same principles as Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe: that sentient beings minds are inviolable, but whatever escapes into the physical universe and off the substrate of pure thought is fair game. Your ideas are yours until they are uttered.

Let me put it this way: would Riker pay for a new sexy holonovel? You bet he would. And thus I humbly birth Rikernomics and how it breaks the post-scarcity world of Star Trek.

[1] http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/interstellar.pdf

2.0 A Thousand Digital Hubs In Your Pocket

The strategy that served Apple well over the last twenty years – that of the personal computer being your digital hub – is only coming under more speculation. Jobs said it himself when declaring that we were in the post-PC era, so where did that leave the PC he had put at the center of the hub? Apple was – and is – surely excited about the cloud, but let’s just say that Apple’s intentions toward the cloud are, well, more of the wishing variety than the practical variety: just because you’re transporting (note: transporting, not delivering) a metric buttload of iMessages every day does not mean you get “cloud” and services, it just means you get (and yes, I’m obviously being facetious here) message transport systems. It’s a Solved Problem, as Whatsapp and its fifty-strong team of Erlang supporters, have demonstrated, and iMessage hasn’t even solved it particularly well yet. Boring. Next.

The idea that the digital hub is your iPhone or whichever portable device you’re using and that terminal, with its physical instantiation and opportunity to be the housing for more powerful local processing, casts its computing and network field around it is intriguing. In a sense, it means that Apple’s future is in PADDs – their future rooted in devices just as surely as their history was – and that Google’s future is in Main Computer.

But that future is a little bit terrifying for Apple if you take a long-term Moore’s Law view of the world because as we well know from historical texts documenting the Culture, you end up with things like terminals which are tiny pieces of local computing infrastructure that you use to talk to the nearby Ships which are inherently less sexy than things like combat drones with their own Minds.

I mean:

“Apple reignited the computing revolution with the Skaffen-Amtiskaw series of combat drones,”

doesn’t really have the same ring of believability to it than

“Apple reignited the computing revolution with the discreet personal terminal,”

does it?

So fine, there’s a bit of a middle ground where your just by sheer dint of Moore’s law you’ve got a slab-shaped thing that you carry around with you that handles your local processing and low-latency needs and instead of wearables you have charms or earpieces or terminals or jewelry or watches or brooches as a cloud of interface objects that orbit you, and I have to admit that the circular watch-face Android Wearable UI with big flashing things and readable text[1] is probably the best watch-based body-substrate computing that I’ve seen lately. An aside: I feel like the quality and craft of Google’s explain-y type videos has dipped of late, and this might just be a function of the sheer volume of work that they’re producing, but they don’t feel as crafted or genuine as they used to. Also that the linked Watch video felt a bit lazy compared to the precedent that had been set with the Glass concept film. Also while I appreciate the lack of plinky-plonk music, it’s just a bit… off.

That said, you know what those watch concepts are like? Combadges.

See, I knew I could get another Star Trek reference in.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrqZl2QIz0c

3.0 Your Server Recommends

Another GDC, another opportunity to sit at dinner to listen to people put forth their reckons about how the iTunes App Store is a) terrible, b) terrible for discovery, c) why is it that Apple doesn’t care about such an important part of its ecosystem.

Because this is my newsletter and not your newsletter and we don’t have to sit through dinner, instead we can just assume that we’ve had that conversation and just have some reckons about concrete things Apple could do about the incredibly successful hot mess that is its App Store.

Well, first they could just rock up to Netflix and license their recommendation algorithms. Or at least ask to take a look. When it matters, Apple have obviously done this: they did it with the Amazon one-click patent.

Why Netflix? They have the least-shit recommendation algorithm out there, and they have one that’s actually used by lots of people. Why not Amazon’s? Because their People Who Bought X Also Buy Y thing is, from *my* anecdata at least, mostly shit and only really fodder for poor stand-up comedy (oh look! People who bought toasters also bought sex toys! Haha! Aren’t algorithms funny!).

No, Netflix because: you all saw that wonderful piece by Alexis Madrigal where Netflix reverse-engineered out all those movie and tv micro-genres[1], right? Your app store deserves micro-genres. I mean, I totally feel like a Flappy Bird Inspired Erotic Hidden Image Game for the next few minutes or, you know what, I’d really try out Minimalist Weather Apps That Use Crowdsourced Photography or To Do Lists Apps For The Bro Lifestyle.

And yes, Apple presumably has, or could have, the same kind of usage data that Netflix has for its a/v content and then, really, what you’re wondering is: where are the micro-genres for *everything*? Could they be at Tesco or Whole Foods or Barnes & Noble or iTunes (for music) or types of soda? I mean, I wouldn’t mind, when doing my online shopping, the exclusively targetted micro-genre of Vegetables That Go Well With Diet Coke And French Bread And Proper Salted Butter.

So, this: Netflix algorithmically micro-genre all the things.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/how-netflix-reverse-engineered-hollywood/282679/

OK! That’s it for Wednesday 19th March, please send notes (especially overly geeky ones about Star Trek futures), and if you know someone at Netflix who wants to license an algorithm you know what to say to them.

Best,

Dan