Episode One Hundred and Eighty: Web Directions South; A Thousand Songs In Your Pocket; Odds 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

9:02am, Friday 31 October in the Seymour Centre, Sydney, Australia. I arrived in Sydney on Wednesday morning local time – having misplaced Tuesday carelessly at a speed of roughly 600 miles an hour – and now I’m sat ready for Genevieve Bell to give the second and final day’s keynote.

1.0 Web Directions South[1]

I sat in the Product Track yesterday. A Keynote from Matt Webb who pretty much opened on slide number two or so with a wonderful image from the Usborne Book of the Future which it seems is emerging as a Significant Cultural Touch Point for People Of A Certain Background And Age: which was amusing and frustrating only in that the third slide of *my* talk had an image from the same book, just a couple pages later.

I’ve been giving talks now for about ten years – the first time I really did it was when I joined Mind Candy full time and at the invitation of [] gave a talk at a BBC conference. I felt sick the day before. Sick the night before. Sick the morning of. I remember feeling the same way that I felt when I was probably around seven years old being driven to a piano recital competition, some Associated Board of Music thing in Birmingham and desperately not wanting to do it, being terrified of making a mistake in public in front of all of those people.

I still feel sick. Maybe not quite as bad, but pretty much all of yesterday up until the moment I was on stage and opened my mouth and the words started coming out was a sort of dread pit in the stomach, and it was only until around 3pm in the afternoon, about an hour and a half before I was supposed to start, that the nausea and nervousness gave way to a physical collapse of tiredness, an exhaustion of adrenalin.

And then of course, the talk starts and everything is awesome and you’re looking out into the audience and you can make them laugh and cry and stop and pause and you really care about what you’re talking about and it just feels right. And then the new, different adrenaline comedown.

But that was just one thing.

There was a bunch of stuff from yesterday, the kind of “things that have caught my attention”. When Webb talked about the design of the early operating systems and the way that computers see the world, that in the Unix philosophy (specifically, the Unix philosophy) *everything is a device* (and everything is a file) and thinking about what that means for the world we’re creating right now. And it feels like this is why we talk – when we talk in negative ways – about services like Uber and the rhetoric of the sharing economy and things like Meat Puppets and the moving of things around and algorithms extending their tendrils more (they were always into he world of course) into the world. The idea from Webb of the Web being egalitarian – that it felt Australian in its promise of a fair go for everyone – int hat it was a new way of *allowing* people a fair go, but that we would have to work at it to ensure that things stayed that way.

Hearing from Younghee Jun about what user research looks like in the field and feeling that conflict of all that *good work* that Nokia did in terms of attempting to understand their audiences and their users and, well, the *people* out there and then attempting to square that with What Happened Next, which was the steamrollering they received from Apple when the iPhone came out that felt like it might be inevitable but certainly not *this* inevitable, but slowly and quickly solidified over time. But Apple didn’t do user research apart from Steve who was the user and then you remember, well, of course, Steve was a human, a person, too and whilst he wasn’t and no one is the Universal Human, he certianly had an opinion and knew what he wanted and the resulting products worked for people who passed some threshold of similarity to Certain Values of Steve.

And then, this killer realisation from Erin Moore that *of course* we don’t experience time in the same way that science experiences time, that the second is an abstraction and a measurement but isn’t the same thing because we know (and have experiments!) that show relative conscious experience of time is smushy, is elastic. And how do you square that with an engineering culture that works with clock ticks, that works with measurable things and doesn’t quite know sometimes how to deal with how something *feels*?

Webb has talked for a while now about the idea of fractional intelligence – a way of looking at how the network will change us in the way that electricity introduced fractional horsepower. All of those things that could happen once our environments became electrified and fractional movement, fractional power was a thing that could become not an inherent property of the natural environment but something we could augment it with. And then that idea of panpsychism that just by dint of existing things process information. Maybe not very much, maybe not very quickly, but just maybe everything does. Of course the other way of looking at it is that in the early 21st century we look at everything through a lens of processing information, we can’t help but see information processing anywhere. We may or may not be right.

But then this idea of a stupendously complicated world, the idea approached from different perspectives by both Webb and Tom Armitage that ease of use has obscured things from us and that we need to work out ways to help us increase, well, maybe not our *understanding* but that at the very least our theory of mind is perhaps broken when it comes to the potential embedding of fractional intelligence in everything. We already anthropomorphise things. Genevieve Bell this morning talked about how in her work people are *convinced* that connected objects are talking, gossiping even, about them. The fridge knows things about you and it’s going to tell all its friends. The screens know what you watch and will tell your car. Part of this, I think, is because on top of the fact that it sounds like we *expect* objects to act this way, or for actors with intent to act this way, is that that’s also the way we’re telling stories about these objects. They *are* things that know about us and we *do* talk about them *telling* things other things. We shouldn’t make fun of people who see The Cloud as a Thing even though the whole point of the network diagram icon was to show a Not Thing, even when it was an abstration in the first place. What do you expect from a bunch of barely-evolved hunter gatherers who still think one sex is superior to the other in the first place? They will *tell tales* on us. Of course they will.

So who do we trust to tell us about what’s going on? Should a fridge be able to explain to you? Should its seams indeed be visible so we can see in a potentially new way, what goes in comes out here? Armitage makes a compelling case for yes, but the slightly-less optimistic me looks at the world and recoils a bit: gosh, there sure are a lot of seams that need exposing.

[1] Web Directions South

2.0 A Thousand Songs In Your Pocket

I saw that the “LG G Watch R”[1] (I will just point, in these brackets, to that product name and not even bother saying anything) has been announced/launched and after taking a brief look through the (terrible) website that shows breakthrough features like being able check your stocks “as easily as you check the time” (which, let’s be honest, for a large number of people these days, “checking the time” is also known as “pulling out your phone and checking the time).

This feels like the A Thousand Songs In Your Pocket problem – the “what does it do, and what is it for”, the simple communication of what this new Thing does for you and why you might be interested in it. This isn’t anything new, what I’m saying about wrist-watch-wearables is certainly not a new insight, it’s just that, well, we know what the potential might be. It’s just a compelling answer for why. A Thousand Songs In Your Pocket could exist because the reason for the original iPod was clear, and part of that earlier, simple time back in the early 2000s was because we didn’t have quite as many MIPS lying around as we do right now. The iPod wasn’t (but could have been) a general purpose computer in the same way that our current touted wrist-saviours are. That’s why I *like* the Withings Activite – because it’s simple and it does a thing and it doesn’t have a screen. I still believe that screens are the tricky thing because they’re infinitely configurable, especially once they’re on the end of a TCP/IP connection.

Tell me: what does the magic screen do?

Well, it’s magic. It can do anything. Good luck with that copywriting.

And when we take a look at the Gizmodo review[3] for the LG G Watch R, sure, it’s a nice piece of hardware, but it seems like no-one’s sure what problem Android Wear is solving other than “wearables are a place where we need to show up, so show up we will”. There’s certainly that belief that “sometime in the future, this will be worth it” but again, no one’s quite sure. Or, if they are, they’re not saying yet.

[1] LG G Watch R
[2] Withings Activite
[3] Gizmodo Review – LG G Watch R

3.0 Odds

Phrases that are temporarily stuck in my head:

I continue to feel happy about the way I’ve been describing my team’s work at Code for America: make building digital government *easy to understand* and *easy to copy*. The copy thing is key, I think. The understand bit is the expected bit. The easy to copy bit is the bit that makes me tingly.

I said yesterday after I showed an ad we made for Facebook that this particular genre was weaponised empathy. Created with a purpose. Edited and soundtracked to an inch of its life. The same thing as ever, just a different name.

Getting ready for my talk yesterday, showing Tom Armitage the recently released Google Fit and railing at its dashboard of charts, getting a little righteously indignant and having him respond to me that, well, *of course*, this was just the first step, this was just the “equivalent of pasting Google Analytics javascript to your foot”.

A conversation with Dan Williams in the morning before getting to the venue about Surprise and Delight and him coming up with the wonderful phrase that “delight” shouldn’t be “something unexpected that a corporation does to you.”

11:18am. Finishing a breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, sat in Toby’s Estate with a flat white.

Send me notes. I love them.

Best,

Dan