Episode One Hundred and Nine: What You Want; Messiahs; The List

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

So I’m camped out in Yet Another Coffee Shop in Portland, this time venturing out to the South East and relying on tethering rather than wifi this time. So I’m getting prepped for a NOSTROMO BLACK trip out at stupid o’clock tomorrow morning out to New York and then bunkering down for a couple of days, before re-emerging in time for the weekend in Portland.

I woke up this morning to see that Warren Ellis has started publishing a morning writing practice at morning.computer[1] of which a) goddamn it that’s a good URL, b) irritatingly good because Warren Elis. Anyway, he describes it like this:

“A system to be in the moment every morning, and a moment to get some things out of my system.  A way to think.  I’m a writer, and I’m also trained to process a thought by seeing it written in front of me.  Which is a ridiculous way to think, and live, but it’s all I have to work with.”

of which – yes, exactly this. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I definitely identify: my thinking happens as I type or as I speak and I frequently don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth until it’s actually come out. If I stop and take a moment, I can be surprised about how something just *appears* and it’s not like it was a conscious observation when I utter a speech fragment. It’s just there. And I probably shouldn’t think too hard about it. My wife once remarked to me that she thought my newsletters were much better in the mornings than in the evenings – you could tell that I was tired, she said, and I wonder if you can, too. But I’ve always said, right from the beginning, that this is about practice for me: a daily habit, one that I’m inordinately proud of (one hundred and nine episodes! In a row! No breaks!) and one that pushes me but that I get a tremendous amount of – well, it would be wrong to say “value” but I get something important out of it that’s good for me.

I think more about what it’s like to just speak and the words to just appear and there’s a niggling bit at the back of my brain that’s probably freaking out about what’ll happen when I can’t type anymore. I was playing with Type Racer[2] the other day and was pleased to see that I’m still hitting around 130 words a minute (amusingly, the last time I logged in was *five years ago*). I don’t even know how fast I can speak. I do know that writing is (obviously, duh) different from speaking: I used dictation systems for about two years whilst I was training to be a lawyer and didn’t really get on with them (they don’t make that much sense when you can type quickly. Well, they make a lot *less* sense) *but* what they do do is enforce a sort of verbal discipline. And yes, you practice and you get better. Almost so that you internally edit *with* a conscious voice, cue up your thoughts in the right order and then hit play and then they spurt out of your mouth.

Heh. Spurt.

[1] http://morning.computer

[2] http://play.typeracer.com

Listening to: The Grid, Remixed By The Crystal Method; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myUAQvBCpYw

Drinking: 12oz moca

Eating: Almond croissant

At: http://www.wateravenuecoffee.com

1.0 What You Want

Marc Andreessen tweeted something this morning (at least, I think it was him – now I can’t find the tweet) along the lines of all the people who wanted flying cars now being super annoyed about autonomous drones. Or, rather, bits of drones falling out of the sky on to them. It prompted a little bit of a thought:

We wanted: flying cars.

We got: self-driving, autonomous cars.

We wanted: jetpacks.

We got: autonomous drones.[1]

Scott Smith pointed out the gap[2], which is that we asked for mechanical and self-contained, and instead we got networked and digital. It’s worth digging into that a bit because I think it illustrates part of how technology informs culture and how culture pushes back to inform what gets made in the present. Or even: what’s possible to imagine.

Jetpacks and flying cars are the prototypical 50s golden-era science fiction: gleaming and polished chrome from a post-war abundancy of America, full of newly empowered boomers exercising personal autonomy, zipping about the place. The 1950s didn’t have networks and it didn’t have digital computers. Computers were big, big things that could hardly take you to the moon, if anyone was ever going to get there.

But I’d argue that this mechanical future is the one that was easiest for us to understand. I keep banging on about this: systems are hard to understand and even harder to visualise. I was encouraged the other day to see op/eds starting to emerge that it’s not learning *code* that should be the goal, and not even learning *how* to code, but thinking programmatically and thinking in that critical way. What is it that I want to achieve, and what steps are involved in achieving it? Logic and flow control are important concepts in terms of understanding instructions and consequence.

It is much easier to demand a future, or future objects, that have been visualised. That feel tangible. Jetpacks and flying cars were made tangible through fiction that captivated the young.

We are in a liminal physical/digital state: some sort of boundary or phase change between code that’s incredibly powerful and shapes our world in unseen ways, and code that is reaching out into our world and affecting it in ways that obey Newtonian mechanics. The feedback loop and understanding between code-that-does-this and reaction-in-the-world is so much shorter now that the network is starting to permeate everything.

We are talking so much about an internet of things when things don’t even need to be *smart* to be connected to or affected by the internet. You can think about the physical effects of the network in terms of points or a field – you could even say that it’s quantum in nature: points of presence, binary states of connectivity: you can get an IP address and send and receive packets or not. But now, at this tipping point, connectivity has become a wave (literally) – carried on EM radiation that permeates the world, but quantised at the same time into packets.

But at some point in the last ten years, the internet flipped, hit a phase change and *did* become a field. Commodities that aren’t smart on their own, products that aren’t smart on their own moved *because the field moved*. When the internet jiggles, the physical atoms embedded in it – although not made of the field or connected to it – jiggle too.

This is what we mean when talking about making things out of a new medium or material. Jetpacks and flying cars were about mechanical, materials science and engineering prowess: taming the physical world and putting it under our thumb. Man can’t fly? We’ll show physics: we’ll put fucking nuclear reactors in everything.

It turned out that the physical world wasn’t quite that easy to tame. At least, it wasn’t at the time.

But this new material is *magic*. It propagates information at close to the speed of light. In networks things together. It’s a signaling fabric that can be smart because it means the *things* don’t need to be smart and the smartness can live elsewhere, if it needs to. We’re a young species, and we still expect things to behave in a classical, physical way. Hell, even abstract concepts like “money” confuse a great majority of us.

We need to want new things to get new things.

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/481463884369248257

[2] https://twitter.com/changeist/status/481466209452707840

2.0 Messiahs

I was pointed in the direction of BBH’s John Hegarty (I’m sorry, this is yet another bit about advertising) talking about this year’s Cannes festival[1] which is a bit like SXSW but for advertising, only, I guess SXSW is for advertising too these days.

Anyway. Hegarty’s got a reasonable point that he wraps in attention-grabbing rhetoric (I know, right! Advertising!) which is that “good stuff” – namely things like the animated John Lewis Christmas ad[1] doing things like Moving The Needle and Numbers Numbers Numbers, Business for the brand (because brands are all about good storytelling) and the combination of a good media buy and a good, excellently produced script, pointing out that you could do all of those things 40 years ago.

Which yes, you could. I’ve got no time for people who’re saying that things are dead because quite clearly quality is never going to be dead and will always have a place at the table.

So Hegarty gets to say that the digital messiahs are like the Taliban because if you disagree with them, you’re taken out and shot (as opposed to the fundamentalist Christians, who if you disagree with about, say, abortion, you get firebombed, but hey, who’s counting). And he’s not helped by digital messiahs who go around saying that TV is dead, but frankly, that’s what startup challenger brands do all the time: say provocative things to get a reaction.

What is interesting that I pick up on is a) that Hegarty talks about the value of brands that build relationships (and where my head goes from that is that relationships can be precipitated by a good ad, for example, but certainly not necessarily sustained by them) and b) that brands are all about storytelling.

Part of where this starts to fall down – or at least be capital D disrupted is in the construction of brands in the first place. All that’s happening is the shift in primacy of a medium: you want to tell a story – an emotionally arresting one – to lots of people at the same time? TV’s not a bad bet.

So fine, it’s a balance. But all of this means that agencies need to work out what they’re good at, and what media can do for them. If agencies are good at *brands* then they’re good at brand *storytelling* in which case, Jesus Christ, are we not surprised that agencies don’t “get” digital? Storytelling is about 1% of the promise of digital, and in terms of “storytelling”, the best kind that agencies seem to achieve success with is the linear video kind. So, you know, why not just double down on that and not bother creating services and products?

There are a whole bunch of other *business* problems that can be solved using digital delivery. Building a brand through storytelling is not the only one. Trying to do “brand storytelling” on digital – transplanting knowledge from one platform to the other – is the difficult part, because it’s a different medium. And you can build brands a different way through a strategy based primarily on delivery, not on communication.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/media/video/2014/jun/20/bbh-john-hegarty-digital-messiahs-video

[2] http://www.johnlewis.com/inspiration-and-advice/az-of-christmas/bear-and-hare

3.0 The List

I keep referencing certain books, so thought I’d pull together a reading list of Things That I Like And That Have Had A Pretty Formative Effect On Me. These are all Amazon Affiliate links too, so if you buy things, they go toward my son’s nascent college fund, provided college doesn’t get disrupted in the next fifteen years or so.

Basically, if you want a primer on how to be me, at a gross level, then you should probably read some of these.

On Pixar:

On startups and management:

Games and design:

Fiction:

OK, that’s it for today. Now off to pack.

Send me notes and also, you’re all good recommendation engines. So some of those books probably sparked off “oh, Dan might like this, too”. So send me your reckons about what I’d be interested in reading.

Best,

Dan