Episode One Hundred and Four: The New Jobs; Disrupting Bitcoin; Protect Us; The Full Stack Is Better?; Dumb Screens

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m writing this at the weekly 30,000 feet, perilously typing into a textarea that’s on the end of a flaky Gogo Wifi connection to the ground. Today and tomorrow are NOSTROMO BLACK days, the last bit of typing for coins and client presentation before potentially a new project opens up. NOSTROMO BLACK also means travelling (duh) a bit further down the west coast to Las Vegas, for my very first visit. Bets open as to what I could possibly be doing in Vegas and why will be accepted via return note.

1.0 The New Jobs

Last episode[1], I asked, more-or-less, when (thought-experiment “when”, not literal “when”) Uber transitions its cars to driverless and we all live in some sort of cartopia where we never have to drive and on-demand automobiles seamlessly shuttle us from one location to another at just the tiniest waggle of our smartphone-wielding hands, what are the best Uber drivers going to be?

It’s kind of related to thinking about: what are the new jobs going to be, what with all this disruption going on? There are the short-term new jobs – the Ubers and TaskRabbits and mainly three-to-five-year arbitrage where there’s people who need something that hasn’t been automated away yet (extreme example: teens who are good at making glitter-makers for other teens’ MySpace profiles to the more up-to-date “good WordPress themes” version) but that’s a bit of a treadmill. Is there something else, something that’s uniquely human that could sustain you for say five to ten years, almost approaching something like a mini-career?

So the thinking is like this: what are the transport jobs in a society with *completely* commoditised on-demand transport? Are drivers in that world the archetypal “driver” who’s discreet and will transport you places off-the-books, no questions asked, never shows up on the household transport account, Madam?

And then, what are the other jobs? The fictional Dr. Susan Calvin[2] was a cyberneticist who ended up specialising in robopsychology. The film and game that got me into all of this mess (in a way) featured a sentient machine therapist. But *right now* in the same way that there are people who make a living sorting out the *physical* plumbing of your house, will there be people who sort out the *software* plumbing of your house? Or your life? In a way (he says, handwavingly, rather like a Church of England clergyman who’s being reminded of Our Lord Jesus), isn’t physical plumbing a sort of integration job in the same way that you might call the local sysadmin around to sort out your hodgepodge of software and hardware services at your apartment?

“Yeah, you’ve had some right cowboys in here. See, you’ve got a Netgear NAS, yeah, that’s one of the five-thousand-series, they recalled those back in the the twenties because the SSDs suffered from a MTBF that was way out of whack *sucks in deeply* so we’re gonna have to replace that, you’ve been backing up to the cloud, yeah? Oh, iCloud? Yeah, we’ll need to have a look at that iCloud setup, see they’ve been failing silently with bit rot, depends – we’ll have to check to see if you’re backing up to Ireland or to Telehouse – oh, and you said something about the toaster’s Dropcam not working? Probably a compatibility issue with it and the new codec – you’ve got a late teens Dropcam, so it’s firmware… *pauses* oh, I’ve not seen one of these for a while. That’s an original firmware! With the Bobby Tables backdoor! The boys back at the office’ll love to see that, I’ll take an image of that one! And this? What’s this? A SkyPlus DVR with WatchAnywhere? Not seen one of those in years! With HDMI 4.0! Yeah, we’ll have to rip all of this out.”

And then you get an invoice for about three hundred quid and all she did was slag off your home network for about half an hour and then nothing worked for a week while everything was being reconfigured.

Already we’re seeing jobs like curators – and I hate using the term – proliferate. A business like Consumer Reports is being bought kicking and screaming into the networked age through highly defined and regularly updated sites that make money from affiliate fees, not gated access with the likes of new entrants like The Wirecutter[3] and its siblings The Sweethome[4] and The Nightlight[5], now being aped by Vox media with This Is My Next[6]. These jobs necessarily rely on network effect, attention and audience gathering. You can *run* one of these as a platform, which is less of a job and more of an entrepreneurial business, or you can contribute to one. In which case, we’re talking about specialised communicators, writers[7].

There are also the elements where people *like* having tasks done by a human, even if they could get equivalent or better or safer service from a computerised system. My former employer is working with Turbotax trying to persuade people to switch from using meat-puppet accountants (who, at the low-end, are reasonably-paid meat puppets performing some sort of Chinese-room equivalent of financial and tax jiggery-pokery behind the veil of a limited liability corporation) to rule-based software systems that are good-as-low-end-human. In the same way that there are some of us who think that the “car thing” will never go away because, at least in America, *driving* is as much a God-given right as owning a gun is (and I’m not going to pull the pin on that particular hand-grenade save to note that I wouldn’t be *entirely* surprised if there were a hot-button self-determination issue to get “the right to drive” as a new constitutional amendment). Again, my former employer put this to great effect in their campaign for Dodge, positioning the All-American car manufacturer as for lots of things, apart from letting computers drive our cars for us[8].

The stack of cards that’s the advertising business continues to reach for the moon. The fact that it’s entirely reasonable for a tweet to take 45 days from brief to deployment is by-the-by[9]. The other side of the narrative is that when a company has the potential for a persistent connection with its customers (sorry, audience) that’s a big gap that needs to be filled with, well, “stuff” (if, indeed you’re the kind of company that likes filling gaps with stuff, whether they should be filled or not. Certain companies would make great donut manufacturers), and the stuff is invariably being filled with “people”. Digital media has meant that we’re faced with a glut of inventory, and while every application might expand until it’s available to read email, every online service or product apparently also has to expand until it’s able to serve targeted advertising, at which point that advertising needs to exist as inventory and inventory needs to be dealt with, programatically or no. Whither the days of teams of people crafting beautiful full-page newspaper spreads, these days, it’s filling social content calendars and planning out strategy. It’s about as opaque as it ever was, with new metrics replacing old metrics and questions still not entirely being answered the whole time.

Goldfarming wasn’t even a thing until persistent net connectivity reached a threshold audience, and even then, goldfarming was something that happened in developing countries (or, in another way, the “differently enfranchised” – ie teens and children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to earn money, but for whom the internet, as a giant communications network, wouldn’t particularly care whether they were of age or not). Is that something people will pay to get better at? Will there be enough disposable income such that you’ll hire the equivalent of a personal trainer for Bungie’s Destiny, or for Respawn’s Titanfall? Or, even, what sort of added-value infrastructure will next-generation clans need?

This all sounds rather idealistic but, from a government’s point of view (or, I guess, from an entrepreneur’s point of view), what do you get all the meat-puppets to do? How jobs are genuine meat-puppet jobs where the meat just provides a presence and a legally safe way to transact or operate machinery? The whole spiel about the “knowledge economy” turns out to be pretty thin when a lot of the knowledge economy appears to be having useless meetings about things and deciding what to do with all the unread emails in your Outlook inbox about needing to clear your food out of the fridge.

I suppose the real question is this: what things are humans *best* at?

As an aside, is the Uber argument even zero-sum? Is there only room for one Uber? (Lyft feels like an also-ran, but then I don’t live in the Bay Area and I’m not a witness to the white-hot heat of disruption and how it feels on the ground) Where’s the brand differentiation? Is there even room for differentiation? If all you’re doing is satisfying a need to get from one place to another, does it matter *how* you arrive? (Sure it does: anyone who wants to make an impression wants to arrive in the right kind of car, right? There’s arriving at your date’s house and trying to impress him with the Google kawaii car and arriving in a Tesla S).

[1] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-one-hundred-and-three-recurring-better-but-not-best/
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Calvin
[3] http://thewirecutter.com
[4] http://thesweethome.com
[5] http://thenightlight.com
[6] http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/11/5798884/welcome-to-this-is-my-next-your-buying-guide-for-the-future
[7] http://thewirecutter.com/jobs/
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajZm6Ew4ODI
[9] http://www.businessinsider.com/huge-social-media-manager-does-all-day-2014-5

2.0 Disrupting Bitcoin

A reader pointed me toward this article[1] about a disturbance (ha) in the bitcoin mining space.

The gist – from what I can make out – is that one particular entity has achieved a majority of network mining power for a significant period of time, in this case, about 24 hours. Majority control of network mining power appears to equate to certain denial of service attacks, but perhaps more central to this is the idea that Bitcoin was supposed to be a decentralised service where trust was distributed. When you end up having to trust one large entity, one of the founding ideologies of Bitcoin ends up evaporating.

From my naive point of view, this feels like what happens when idealistic technology encounters run-of-the-mill humans who’re incentivised by hard cash (albeit one in a different financial system). It’s interesting to look at whether this constitutes some sort of panic regarding bitcoin – that the currency and infrastructural system around it suffers (or adheres to) the same kind of confidence requirement that any monetary system does. There’s now talk, I bet, of “faith in Bitcoin” which would spur protocol and algorithm development of an even more decentralised protocol and web of trust and verification that, one imagines, would lead to another Red Queen sort of race to game the system.

[1] http://hackingdistributed.com/2014/06/16/how-a-mining-monopoly-can-attack-bitcoin/

3.0 Protect Us

In a not altogether unsurprising move, data crunched from Nest Protect sensors[1, 2] have revealed that you’re more likely to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning than previously thought, so you’d better go get a carbon monoxide alarm.

Now, this sort of aggregate data is great – from 400,000 homes, so not an insignificant amount, I suppose – and hey, we always knew that replacing reckons with data was going to be a good thing, too.

I don’t have a Nest Protect. I don’t know how mnuch data you get access to, but at some point, you imagine a sort of “data in the public interest” legislation that would be inefficient for the government to collect. Regulatory authorities aren’t (or are they?) going to require every homeowner (or a majority of homeowners) to include public health sensors in their homes, and you could argue that they’d be hard pressed to in the US with issues of self-determination, privacy and overreach. So when it falls to the private sector to instrument the world that we live in, and that data could be useful to public policy, what happens?

[1] http://gizmodo.com/how-nest-is-already-using-all-that-data-from-its-army-o-1591811364
[2] https://nest.com/downloads/press/documents/co-white-paper.pdf

4.0 The Full Stack Is Better?

I’m sitting here trying to figure out a way of talking about this particular issue without necessarily finger-pointing or doing the usual “ooh, Google” dance. Let me give you personal example. Portland, Oregon, is a step closer to getting Google Fiber now that its council has voted through granting a local broadband franchise to our favourite mathematically inspired conglomerate.

My wife, in her usual insightful way (all of my best ideas are, naturally, hers and I just take credit for them) pointed out that we could either deal with the devil we knew, Comcast, in which case we knew them to be pretty institutionally incompetent and gouging, or we could potentially deal with Google, with whom we could guess to be almost unnaturally efficient in trying to not be evil. Trading one titan for another, without any real choice doesn’t feel like any real choice.

I’ve already done some things that at times feel more like tilting at windmills and mere acts indicating defiance rather than something that actually *matters* – my emails are signed now, so I suppose you know if they come from me or not – and my email moved a while ago from Gmail to Fastmail.

I suppose the frustration is in this, something that also came out over lunch today. I was complaining about how terrible EHR software was and how you’d get something like Epic’s MyChart as an add-on as a hospital system in that Epic would, I presume, sell you an add-on “oh look, your patients get an app! You get an app! You get an app too! Everyone gets apps!” when you buy into their more-or-less vendor-locked-in “solution”. I would say something like: MyChart is terrible, to which my stockholm syndrome lunch meet would protest “yes, but it’s better than nothing!”

Screw nothing! Screw better than nothing! Just because it’s better than nothing doesn’t mean it’s *good*. (ZoomCare, another Portland-based primary healthcare provider, felt like it was

And I guess the deal is this: Google is certainly better than what we had before. I hope that we can get *even better than Google* and I wonder how much of that will be able to deal with the capriciousness of human beings. By that, I mean this: Google is the product of not only hundreds of thousands of servers toiling away in farms, but it’s also the product of tens of thousands of *people*. And people are, well – I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and say you just have to read Franz Kafka’s The Trial, not Orwell’s 1984 to get an idea of what people can be like – people. The technology is a human construct that, which algorithms reflect the biases of humans. They don’t *have* to, it’s just that if you’re not constantly on the look-out for how they *might* be doing that, you just won’t spot it.

So the deal with the Full Stack is: yes. Fine. We get a search platform. We get a stupendous world-spanning video platform. We get real-time translation. We get mobile phones. We get maps. We get near real-time satellite data. We get super-fast internet access. We get self-driving cars. We get, gosh, so many things. We get it all! In one place!

I wish I had something more constructive to say than “I have a bad feeling about this,” but I don’t, really. Centralisation just doesn’t feel good. And a really, really, really tall integrated stack feels like it just also might be good at tottering over.

[1] http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/16/5814380/google-fiber-is-cleared-to-land-in-portland

5.0 Dumb Screens

My friends at Berg have done a lot of thinking about this, and I know there’s a lot of other thinking out there too. Experiments with e-ink screens persistently showing ambient information, and the idea of living *with* screens instead of them just being black mirrors that tempt us in infinitely configurable ways.

One thing that’s struck me about screens – and it looks like the idea might be coming back with Apple’s iOS 8 and Yosemite through something they’re calling Handoff – is that they’re so *dumb* in some ways. I’ll give you an example: I long thought that if you had to choose between a network-connected screen or a 3D screen, you’d choose the network-connected one. Sure, the choice is a false one because you’d get the network connection with a 3D TV anyway, but the fact remained that connecting to the network made something that much more powerful and flexible.

Or so I thought.

The internet connections in smart TVs (never mind displays) these days feel more like they’re about content delivery than the fact that holy shit you’ve got in best-case a gigabit ethernet connection plugged into that thing over there. And it goes both ways! So whilst we have input screens and output screens (and the TV still has a big role as, well, the biggest output screen), it’s also something where it feels like it’s a piece of – well – functionality and furniture. The big TV is the centerpiece of a room, it’s something that so many other things are still arranged *around*.

So the idea of a TV that is aware of all the other screens in the house in a way that’s smarter than just AirPlay or Chromecast, that acknowledges that there are all these other screens, or that knows for argument’s sake what *room* it’s in and acts accordingly is super interesting.

And that’s just TVs. Screens that are aware of each other in terms of close proximity – if you haven’t played Spaceteam[1], you should – that take advantage of physical presence and the fact that we have a supercomputer in our pocket that’s got local two-way communication to people who’re in the same room as you. Because people are often in the same room as you.

It feels like there’s been a fair amount of work done in this area – Bump is a boring one – but at the same time it feels like most of the work is the *boring* kind – the problem solving utility, hey, let’s try and build something in the Valley that’s going to scale, that isn’t necessarily really creative and, well, fun.

So I’m going to think about that. Fun things to do with people near you. Not in a Tinder-way. But in a fun way.

[1] http://www.sleepingbeastgames.com/spaceteam/

That’s it for today. Have you never sent me a note before? Do you know how easy it is? It’s easy: you hit reply, and then you start typing and then an amount of time later, you stop typing and you hit send. There. Easy.

Best,

Dan