Episode Forty Eight: Not Yet A Phyle; Ready Player One; Fantasy Acquisitions

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s Monday (in Perth, Western Australia, at least), so I’m writing episode forty eight. I have a long trip ahead: tonight I’ve a three hour flight to Melbourne, then a fourteen hour flight to LAX then a two hour flight home to Portland. Hopefully I’ll be able to sleep for most of it. If not, there’s a whole bunch of reading (Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings has been on my list for a while, plus I have Leander Kahney’s book on Jony Ive to finish). When I get to Melbourne, I’ll work on Episode Forty Nine.

1.0 Not Yet A Phyle

“Then there were the tribes that people just made up out of thin air–the synthetic phyles–but most of them were based on some shared skill or weird idea or ritual.”

I’m not quite sure where this one is going, and I’m a little worried that it’s going to seem cliquey. On the other hand, I think it’s worth taking a look at.

I was reading Charlie Loyd’s tiny letter[1] (as pointed out on Twitter, a brand name on the verge of becoming lowercased and genericised, at least amongst a certain group of people), and it’s such a good example that I want to preface it by saying this is an observation of one group (of which I think I’m a part, so there goes detachment), and trying to see if there’s anything to extrapolate from it.

So settle down: it’s story time.

One day, Dan Williams was trying to write his talk for Future Everything, a conference being held in Manchester, England. As these things are wont to go, he joked that instead of a talk, he could simply play the game 2048 on stage. 2048, for those who’re following along at home, is a game based on 1024, which is a game based upon Threes – more here[2].

It would be better, remarked a wag (and there’s a significant number of wags on Twitter, the medium is pretty much designed for it), if there was a version of 2048 that replaced the numbers on the tiles with conference topics. And because this is the internet, and because the source to 2048 was widely available, it turned out to be trivial to knock up a fork of 2048 that gently poked fun at the idea of playing a game on stage instead of presenting a talk. That game was then deployed to the the usvsth3m website[3], a project out of the Trinity Mirror group designed to quickly build bits of fun internet culture journalism, such site run by Martin Belam and his merry cohort of internet culture jokesters, and I use the latter term in nothing but an affectionate term.

And then here’s the bit: Charlie and Robinson Meyer, a journalist, have an IM conversation about 2048, (iamdanw edition), have a conversation about it, the gist of which is “What can we say about the people who think this is fun and clever?”[4] Now, here’s the bit which gets potentially clique-y, for which I apologise:

Rob: Have you played 2048, Dan W edition yet?
Charlie: No.
Rob: It is a hoot.
Rob: http://games.usvsth3m.com/2048/dan-w-edition/
Charlie: Astonishing.
Charlie: Died at 2656.
Charlie: What can we say about the people who think this is fun and clever?
Charlie: Can we make a more interesting description than “people who have heard of the New Aesthetic”?

Now, you kind of have to play the game and know about the New Aesthetic to know what’s going on here. Or, rather, you can play the game and not know much about the New Aesthetic, too. In this version of the game, the numbers are represented by New Aesthetic-y concepts – you start with a shipping container, progress to a cubesat, then a drone, then a freight vessel, then the 2012 Olympic Mascot Wenlock, then the Epcot Centre, then a Space Shuttle, then the London Shard, then a Big Dog and so on.

All this is kind of to say: okay, it’s a very funny in-joke, if you’re in-enough to get the joke, and that’s where the charge of cliqueism comes from. But at the same time (and having just come out of finally finishing Ready Player One), there are onion-skin layers of cultural reference that make this thing pretty complicated.

Charlie’s question “Can we make a more interesting description than “people who have heard of the New Aesthetic” is an interesting one to me, because it points to a kind of categorising of people. And I’ve never had an arts background or upbringing, and I’ve never really considered myself that up on culture or subcultures, but, and this is the thing – is this a *thing*?

Perhaps the best expression of Bridle’s New Aesthetic is Bruce Sterling’s writeup of the New Aesthetic panel from SXSW 2012 (2012! Two years ago now!)[4]. And I think the answer to Charlie’s question is this, again from Sterling:

The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

A theory object and a shareable concept that can be used as an attribute to describe a group of people. All very wanky, yes, but then Sterling says ultimately that the New Aesthetic is “a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society.”

Here’s where I think it’s different, though. And again, I caveat this with not having an art history background or, really, bluntly, not knowing what I’m talking about and just mouthing off with an opinion. But this is my newsletter, etc. If you were to map the core practitioners of the New Aesthetic and where they are, you’d find an inordinate number of people *doing* things. This isn’t the art that you’d look at and make you think, these are services, internet-connected objects, things that because they live in a networked world and are *designed* for a networked world are necessarily mass or at least have the opportunity to be mass. Bitcoin, for crying out loud, is New Aesthetic, and the things made with it are. And the people playing with this stuff associated with this New Aesthetic have got day jobs. Or are designing how people interact with governments.

So I think the answer to Charlie’s question feels like a nascent phyle, Diamond-Age[5] style. A loose grouping of people with a networked sensibility with the power to actually alter, or nudge, the behaviour and affectation of that network in the physical world. They don’t all work together. They share roughly the same values, ish. But they’re definitely not recognised as a formal group.

[1] http://tinyletter.com/vruba/letters/6-5-hills
[2] http://asherv.com/threes/threemails/
[3] http://games.usvsth3m.com/2048/dan-w-edition/
[4] http://www.wired.com/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/
[5] Amazon: http://amzn.to/1gGGdiP, Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780553380965, Abe Books: http://www.abebooks.com/Diamond-Age-Young-Ladys-Illustrated-Primer/10820649916/bd

2.0 Ready Player One

Okay, so I finally finished Ready Player One[1]. And yes, you can properly describe it as a cultural nerdgasm, the ultimate end-game of what happens when a bunch of geeks got together and make referential in-jokes and quote bits of culture as self-expression.

I *think* if I’d read this at a younger age, it’d probably have the same effect as Coupland’s Microserfs did. As it is, my brain is decrepit and its neural structures have probably lost all of their malleability, so the impact of this book feels like it’s somewhat lessened. And yet.

For anyone who grew up with the net – and there are a few of us, by now – it probably strikes a personal chord. It’s not like I didn’t get on with people at school and didn’t have friends, but I definitely found it easier to express myself through a keyboard. And, most of the people I’ve met through my life who’ve stayed the closest friends are those who I met through the ‘net. Whether it was the blogging scene in the late 90s in the UK all the way through to the way it’s easy – for certain values of easy – to get to know people over Twitter now, there’s been something about the network mediating relationships that does some good.

Of course, all of those friendships were then mediated in the real world. We met in pubs and drank and made in-jokes and quoted shared culture at each other, finishing each others’ sentences. But it genuinely felt to me that the time we spent with each other with a keyboard and a screen separating us helped us to get to know each other better. Now, this might have been self-selecting: we were pretty honest people, or at least, people who liked expressing themselves through text. But at exactly the same time, we were learning that people weren’t taking the opportunity to express their true selves and instead were playing out with different facets of their personalities that might not have been so grounded in reality.

There’s a wonderful section toward the end of the book about Aeche, our protagonist Parzival’s best friend, that treads over a well-worn aspect of identity on the ‘net and it’s done (in my view, at least) in a touching and human way that feels genuine. For a lot of people, still, pseudonymity on the ‘net is a leveler where our society hasn’t caught up out in the physical world. And it’s telling that when that pseudonymity is removed, we painfully revert to privilege, bias and misogyny because, well, that’s what we are as a society right now.

I don’t really have an opinion about OASIS versus Oculus Rift, I have to admit. It’s clear that OASIS occupies a different place in our shared consciousness if only because of time and the fact that Snow Crash’s Metaverse and the cyberspace envisaged by Gibson was seminal. When Michael Abrash, now at Oculus, admits that Snow Crash was a direct inspiration[2], we know where we stand. I see OASIS as a direct descendent, merely the latest version of the same family tree. That’s why OASIS isn’t that interesting: it’s just a written record of where we wish VR was, rather than anything particularly new. Sure, it’s coloured in and a bit more detail has been added, but (and I hope this doesn’t feel like a cop-out), but at some point it feels like there’s only so much pontificating you can do about a subject like VR without actually making a lot of it.

[1] Amazon: http://amzn.to/1oh3rRB, Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780307887443, Abe Books: http://www.abebooks.co.uk/Ready-Player-Ernest-Cline/9530178007/bd
[2] http://www.oculusvr.com/blog/introducing-michael-abrash-oculus-chief-scientist/

3.0 Fantasy Acquisitions

“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time”

A short one, this one.

The other day I did a thing I sometimes do which is tweet out fake tech company news because, I guess, I’m weird. This one was along the lines of Apple announcing that it had acquired, in a double whammy, both Muji and Uniqlo, the former for Internet of Thingsish type reasons, and the latter for wearable clothing fashion-y type reasons. It’s fun (for, er, certain geeky values of fun, I guess) to imagine sometimes which companies would buy which other companies and why and how they wouldn’t be complete wastes of time and money and instead genuinely offer an opportunity for advancement.

So here’s the reasoning: you’ve got a company that makes computers and has always made computers and you’ve got for the first time, what feels like tangible movement toward ubiquitous computing. There are a *tonne* of smart mobile devices out there, all networked up the wazoo and everyone’s looking for the next big thing. Oh, and you’ve just hired the CEO of Burberry.

The CEO of Burberry doesn’t know how to make computers. She does know how to do fashion. So then the question is this: Apple ignited the personal computing revolution with the Mac, yes. And then ate the music industry with the iPod, yes. Which – note – was not anything to do with personal computing. And then ate the mobile phone industry with the iPhone, which had everything to do with personal computing, because *get this* – phones are way lower down Maslow’s hierarchy than Personal Computing in its desktop and latterly laptop phase because those things tended to solve problems at the self-actualisation pointy-end because they were tethered to a location, whereas something that’s in your pocket all the time can actually help you at the physiological/safety/belonging end of the pyramid. And how did they do that? Because of Moore’s Law and the phone being a trojan horse: the vast majority of people might not feel like they have need for a desktop general purpose computing device to accomplish, basically, White People Things, but stick the same power in a pocket device whose main use historically was “talking to people”, and suddenly you’ve unlocked the ability to service a whole bunch of latent need.

Where was I. Right.

Is Apple going to *invent* more computing devices, or is Apple going to *add* computing to more things. I reckon the answer’s the latter – in which case, when do they start buying expertise into those areas? There are already reports of Apple recruitment being rebuffed by the Swiss watchmakers. Nest, it feels like, is a little bit too close to the tree.

Apple was lucky, I think, with phones. Phones were an adjacency. But when it’s possible to add computing to anything, are they going to learn that industry every single time?

OK. I’m going to head out to Perth airport and hang out in the Virgin lounge for a bit. And work on an exciting Secret Project.

As ever, send me notes, because I love them.

Best,

Dan