Episode One Hundred and Forty Two: Sketchy; Don’t Call It Sharing; Walking Sensors, Contd.; 2014 (3)

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

The farm out in Missouri. Eighty-odd degrees outside, gorgeous in the shade with a light breeze, steaks on the grill including That Amazing Secret About Cooking Frozen Steaks that just went around the net. Me holed up with man-flu until 2pm in the afternoon, hacking, coughing and spluttering after having gotten into Kansas City at around 1am in the morning. An excited eighteen month old shouting “daddy daddy daddy!” and showing me how he uses his watering can outside.

Yeah, it’s not that bad.

1.0 Sketchy

SketchFactor[1] has attracted a fair amount of attention lately. There’s a good backgrounder piece[2] by Caitlin Dewey that covers some of the main reasons why it’s left a not-so-great taste in the mouth: the loaded term Sketchiness, issues around moderation, opaque usage of public data, the launch availability of the app on iPhones only.

There’s two things I would’ve done. The first is the easiest: changed the name. It’s not inclusive and doesn’t speak to actually fixing problems, just avoiding them. In other words, SketchFactor is built around the premise of avoiding sketchy areas, and doesn’t really seem interested in fixing them. You’ve got an us/them attitude linguistically programmed into the app straight from the start.

The other is access: Allison McGuire, one of the app’s co-founders seems intent on pushing the view that SketchFactor is good for *everyone* whilst conveniently sidestepping the fact that something that’s good for everyone but can only be accessed by *some* people isn’t good for everyone. This is the same kind of bizarro thinking that leads US startups to say that they’re remaking public traWEnsport, when that public transport is more expensive and doesn’t have a public service remit: ie, it doesn’t have to go places that public transport has to go.

It’s strange to me. McGuire says that her career is dedicated to empowering communities, but it’s not clear from SketchFactor exactly which communities (well, it is, kind of, just through omission) what kind of communities SketchFactor is designed to empower. It’s designed to empower the people who don’t want to have to go through, or deal with, “sketchy” neighbourhoods.

SketchFactor makes it easier to engage without, instead of within: if you see, for example, a couple of guys walking around with gas cans, you can talk about them instead of to them, and you’re encouraged to award them a Sketch Factor of 5[3] instead of, say, asking them if they need any help, or engaging in any other way. SketchFactor is the kind of technology-mediated communication that pushes us further away, instead of closer to, the stuff that’s happening right in front of our eyes.

And that’s before the attraction of building something cool: an iPhone app. I’ll get straight back on my GDS hobby-horse here and say that there’s nothing in SketchFactor that couldn’t be done in a mobile web app and instantly be more accessible to a significantly larger audience. But, that wouldn’t be cool. It wouldn’t reach the right kind of audience.

I’m fed up of this shit. This isn’t solving problems, it’s fiddling around at the edges, and I don’t care if there’s even a minority of community leaders who welcome this sort of thing: it’s designed wrong. It’s not supportive, it’s not positive and it’s divisive and it fucking pisses me off.

[1] SketchFactor
[2] The many problems with SketchFactor, the new crime crowdsourcing app that some are calling racist – The Washington Post
[3] Sketchy Gas Cans, SketchFactor 5

2.0 Don’t Call It Sharing

This is partly a marketing and communications issue, but I’m of the position now where I’m calling bullshit on anyone who says they’re part of the ‘sharing economy’. Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz tweeted a good position on this the other day; it’s less about sharing than it is about “increased asset utilization”[1]. A layman’s interpretation of sharing doesn’t, I think, include a situation where payment exchanges hands for the goods or services being shared – unless, for example, there’s a shared investment. Which there isn’t, in cases like ride-sharing (which commonly haven’t actually been ride-sharing), taxi-hailing, or rental accommodation as exemplified by VRBO or Airbnb. No – those last two are rentals. What they *are* absolutely interesting for is opening up secondary markets and allowing increased utilisation of potentially scarce assets, and they’re also in the position of giving people an alternative to ownership through access. But they’re absolutely not sharing, and to suggest that they are is semantic chicanery of the douche-ridden kind.

[1] https://twitter.com/cdixon/status/499301824885960704

3.0 Walking Sensors, Contd.

Last episode, I talked about the management trend of instrumenting up your employees in Essentially Walking Sensors[1] and it threw up a number of replies from readers. The upshot is – from Matt Locke and Matthew Hawn – that this has been going on for a while with those in the truck driving/haulage business – which probably should’ve occurred to me if I’d actually slowed down and thought about it for a bit. Has this been good for employees! No! By now, it should be clear that there are at least two types of job in the world: the meat puppet kind, where the employee acts as a pseudo robot that’s just carrying out instructions and isn’t afforded any trust or autonomy to solve problems and, well, the other kind that’s a bit more self-actualised and given autonomy and trust *to* solve problems. Guess which camp the “instrument all the employees” people fall in to.

(Here’s a clue – in an interview with the Washington Post[2], the chief executive of the US version of the Government Digital Service, newly launched as the U.S. Digital Service, places great stock in the ideas in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, who points out that if you want to get a lot out of people, they react well to being given agency and mastery of a domain.)

Yep. So, from Matt Locke I get a link from Director magazine back in 2009 where, unsurprisingly, a company that sells devices for tracking people makes the case that companies practically have a duty of care to know where their employees are *at all times* and to know that they are safe[4]. I bet you’re glad your employers cared that much about you.

From Matthew Hawn, another link, this time from Forbes – about truck drivers and surveillance equipment[5] from earlier this year. Tellingly, the last line of that Forbes article says that it doesn’t look like employment has been affected – there’s been no reduction in demand for jobs even when such monitoring equipment is in place, which indicates as much to be the fact that employees pretty much have to suck it up, rather than the contra-indicator.

Interestingly, it’s Matthew Hawn who suggests that perhaps employees need their very own danah boyd – someone who’s advocating for them, seeing as it’s not clear that trade unions are either capable of demonstrating they understand such technology from a long term point of view, or that they’re capable of framing it in the right way.

[1] Episode One Hundred and Forty One: Essentially Walking Sensors; Recorded For Your Safety; More 2014
[2] White House launches ‘U.S. Digital Service,’ with HealthCare.gov fixer at the helm – The Washington Post
[3] Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
[4] Should employers be allowed to track the whereabouts of their staff? – Director Magazine
[5] Is New Truck-Monitoring Technology for Safety — or Spying on Drivers? – Forbes

4.0 2014 (3)

Mannequins have started tracking customers in stores. A woman has won the Fields Medal for the first time, and IKEA is updating its minimum wage in the USA by using a tool built by MIT. While up to 2/3 of police work in the UK involves at-risk groups, there are calls for warrentless out-of-hours access to medical records; the UK has yet to complete computerisation of medical records in any event. Bots routinely monitor Wikipedia, a crowdsourced encyclopaedia for anonymous edits from governmental and corporate sources. Software routinely listens to uploaded audio/video files to mine for copyright infringement and one of the most successful movies of the year so far has a talking tree. It turns out that a sovereign state did not auto-disconnect from the internet but that its removal was a botched surveillance attempt by another sovereign state. Voice interfaces are commonplace for simple queries.

It’s 2014.

We’re off on a road trip tomorrow, but don’t let that stop you from sending any replies, because I will read them and then I’m going to write more. That’s how it works.

Hope you had a good Wednesday,

Dan