Episode One Hundred and Ninety Five: 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:06pm, in the basement in the work cave, stood in front of the giant Thunderbolt display on a weeknight after a decidedly “meh” day at work. The kind of day where you kind of get things done but there isn’t just any oomph and lots of things just *happen* to your work diary. Side note: Americans snigger in confusion at the British use of “diary” in a work context (as in: can you find some time to schedule that in my feelings journal?)

Anyway. Unlike some other days, I don’t have a text file full of things that are interesting or that are on my mind at the moment. To paraphrase Tony Curtis, I’m just a boy, standing in front of a keyboard, hitting it hoping something intelligible comes out. To that end:

1.0 The Process

This is what the Process is like: it’s looking at a numbered text file (in this case, 195.txt) in a newsletters folder that’s synced in Dropbox and having a look at it in TextWrangler. Scratch that, that’s what the process is normally, this time around, I’m writing straight into Tinyletter’s compose interface, something that I’m not entirely happy with because the formatting never comes out right. The last few newsletter episodes I’ve been writing in Textwrangler directly – HTML tags and all – and then pasting into the compose interface.

But anyway, perhaps that’s too much detail. Sometimes I just paste links or thoughts into those numbered text documents – and there’s only ever the most recent one, not any in the future. Any links or thoughts that don’t get used, just get punted to the next one. A sort of running order, if you will, and I get to move things around. And then I do stuff like look at stellar.io[1], Jason Kottke’s pseudo-social network based around the things people fav as a way to discover, oh, I don’t know. Weak signals. I mean, you can look at the people I follow[2] on Stellar to see the kind of people whose brains I think are interesting – what are the things that these people have faved, and that kind of thing. They’re like another layer of my exobrain, some sort of social tinglyness detector, a sort of spidey-sense for making sense of the world.

And then I might do what I normally do each day, which is look through all of the RSS feeds that I still subscribe to via Newsblur[3]. I guess it’s interesting that so far, both of those tools are things that I pay for. I’m a relatively well compensated person and I can afford to pay for stuff that’s useful to me, so I don’t mind paying for an RSS reader (thanks, Google) and I certainly don’t mind supporting someone like Kottke, who’s made something like Stellar that I visit multiple times a day (and also appears on my iPhone’s home screen as a web app icon). Newsblur reckons that I subscribe to 271 RSS feeds, which strikes me as not very many, certainly not as many as I used to subscribe to back in the heady heights of RSS, back in the days of NetNewsWire and reading Scripting.com and reading about The Thing Dave Winer Had Said That Had Offended People This Time. I don’t treat my RSS feeds as a sort of must-read list – more something that I dip into and dip out of. Newsblur also reckons that there are 3,749 somethings and 21 somethings, and I have no idea what that means. I’m pretty resigned (and blasé, I reckon) about the fact that things happen in the stream or river of news and then they might just pass me by. Stellar is actually a good way of picking that up – if my friends – or the people I follow – find something interesting, then there’s a good chance that I might, too.

A guilty secret that I have is that I kind of obsessively hate-read Hacker News[4], if only to find out what’s currently occupying the group mind of *that* particular community, but also because it does surface interesting links now and then. And it’s the links that are always interesting (unless, of course, you go and read the comments in which case it’s pretty much a crapshoot). Sorry, Hacker News community, but you’ve kind of built a stereotype for yourselves. I guess I feel like there’s been a *bit* of an improvement in terms of how inclusive that community has been over the last 12-18 months (mainly because of the slow but inexorable progress that I think the tech community *has* been making over the last 12-18 months), but certainly nothing to write home about.

I don’t think stuff on Facebook ever really triggers thoughts that I end up writing about in here. Sorry, Facebook. But you’re not that kind of network, and you don’t offer that kind of utility to me.

Sometimes – sometimes! – if I’m desperate I’ll take a look through my Pinboard[5], which at the moment is mostly full of things that I’ve faved on Twitter and things I’ve instapapered (which is sort of becoming a substitute for bookmarking/pinning on Pinboard itself because I’m happy to say out loud that I don’t actually *ever* get around to reading most of the stuff I Instapaper, it’s mainly so that I have an archive of it somewhere). The reason for looking in my Pinboard feed is that honestly I have no idea what I’ve found interesting over the past 24 hours or so and feel like, in general, I have an attention span that’s down at the planck scale. Demonstrably, it isn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, so perhaps it’s more that I just can’t remember things. No matter: I outsource all that to Maciej Ceglowski. If I don’t find anything interesting that jogs my memory in Pinboard, then I’ll turn to my Pinboard network which, like my Stellar flow, is a collection of Pinboard bookmarks from people I find interesting. But to be perfectly honest, I just looked at that page right now to see if I could link you to it, and I can’t, and I also can’t even remember the last time I looked at that page. So I guess I don’t do that very often.

Oh, and Twitter, I suppose.

I have two Twitter accounts. One for friends – that holds quite steady at the Dunbar number – and a “public”. Friends have said that they’re sometimes surprised at where I draw the line between “public” and private, that I may sometimes seem a little reckless with what I feel able to say publicly. Perhaps that’s a reflection of whatever privilege I might enjoy – I’ve never been in trouble for anything I’ve tweeted. I’ve certainly *turned myself in* about something I’ve tweeted, and was then told that it wasn’t a problem. I am, I’ve realised, the kind of person who is able to get away with saying things – at least, so far – and it seems to rebound (so far, again) in a positive fashion. I know it’s not like that for most people.

I might see something on Twitter – probably via my public account, which is the noisy stream one where I accept I won’t see everything and apparently follows 2,358 people. That’s a silly number of people to follow. I went through a process a few months ago when I tried really hard to be more diverse in the people I follow, and I’m still trying to do that. It’s still mainly white dudes, unfortunately, but I think I’m making progress. Anyway, occasionally there’ll be something that I see in the stream that grabs my attention and before you know it I’ve stuck something in a text file or, even better, I’ve just started writing.

I’ve gotten in trouble – or at least, gotten valid criticism – about the actual writing process. Some of you have probably noticed that the way I write this newsletter is more like speech than prose writing – that it’s not like I’m sitting down and constructing an argument, instead, that I’m pretty much typing as I’m thinking out loud. I’m just not audibly saying the words. People have said to me that you can follow an argument or position being developed just by following the writing, and that it’s pretty interesting to see that happen almost as if I’m talking. It also appears to be the way that I figure stuff out – only by “saying” things do I seem to get that feedback loop, which probably means that I need to go back and read up on why Sapir-Whorf is wrong again.

Anyway. The writing is quick and stream of consciousness and not edited. And that means mistakes. And it also means that I’ve had that valid criticism about how the stream of consciousness – by design – reflects innate biases that I have, whether I like those biases or not, and definitely whether or not I see those biases as being positive parts of my character. It has meant that over the last few months, I’ve tried to slow down a bit. There’s a tension between writing this for me: which I maintain that I have always done, and recognising that I have nearly 2,000 subscribers to this newsletter which, if we’re being completely honest, is pretty impressive for something where I just spew out bits of my brain into a text field. (And, if you’ve seen the subscriber list to this newsletter, which hopefully you haven’t, because it means that Tinyletter have a pretty major security breach, then you’d be surprised – as I am – at exactly who *is* subscribed to this list).

But, ultimately, that’s what the process is. I don’t make claims to write about anything other than what’s on my mind at the moment, so that’s why I can be ranting and raving about the ‘californian ideology’ for a few episodes and then go off on one about digital transformation before having a go at a terribly executed ad campaign to just getting Annoyed At Something.

These are all just reckons, and I think something important to do is to take them all with a hefty block of salt. I try to remind you all that they’re just what I *think* and that in some cases whilst there might be evidence on paper that I’m “smart” somewhere, I actually don’t really know that much about what I’m talking about. I might be good at *writing* about what I’m talking about, but being persuasive or being interesting doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re right.

Anyway, again. That’s what happens. I just come up with something to write. I have no idea how many bits-per-second of stimulus the human brain gets, and when you include all the internal stimulus it can generate through just recalling stuff, never mind relevant stuff, I suppose all I’m doing when I write this is just reacting to stimulus. Which is in a way, a terribly reductionist and depressing way to look at things.

[1] stellar.io – you can’t sign up at the moment, I think you have to be invited. Tell you what, email me and I’ll use up *one* of my previous invitations.
[2] http://stellar.io/danhon/following
[3] https://newsblur.com
[4] https://news.ycombinator.com
[5] https://pinboard.in/u:danhon

2.0 A Watch For Your Car For The Mind

There are several things floating around in my head. One is that it’s getting impossible (not really, but you know what I mean) to avoid hearing about the imminent launch of the Apple WATCH. The second is a tweet from giant mind on planet Earth Ian Bogost, who said “The iPad is technology + design. It doesn’t become “liberal arts” on account of somebody can read a book on it.”[1] which, well, yes. The third is this weird rumour that Apple is thinking about making a car, which prompted me to make an overly labored joke about how one should skate to where transport is going, not where transport has been[2], which is trying to say, but in 140 characters: a) are cars really so bad that Apple needs to show us how to make a car? (Answer: no, not as bad as they were in 2007, when there was no iPhone, because Tesla exists), b) does Apple think that it can beat Tesla? (Maybe, who knows? They certainly know how to make lots of complicated things, and appear to have the whole supply-chain thing down pat) and c) what is it with cars anyway? In the same way that AI always seems to be about 50 years away, are we *really* 50 years away from driverless cars this time?

And the whole WATCH thing. I am persuaded that there is an end-game here, in that people “want” (in the way that people can be said to want these things) the sort of science-fictional magic “terminal” devices that you get in settings like Iain M. Banks’ culture novels where essentially you have a piece of jewelry that’s a network connected node to a stupendously powerful set of computing resources and Minds. One of the things that I’m profoundly disappointed about in terms of the WATCH is that it falls into this whole area of:

a) things;
b) wearables;
c) things that sense;
d) things with screens; and
e) that are connected.

Other people have said it better than me, but “wearables” is what you get as a term when you have an industry that has never really made anything wearable and has mainly started in making room-sized things, and then desk sized things, and then luggable sized things, and then balance-on-your-lap sized things, and then, put-in-your pocket things, and has suddenly realised that thanks to a “law” which is more of an observation and lately even more of a prayer, the things that they are making are now small enough not just to be *carried* by people every day, but actually to be part of something far more intimate and closer to our person.

What’s confusing is that one of the things that’s super interesting is: things that sense that can talk. Never mind the whole thing about things that can sense and that tattle and tell tales on you – yes, we’ve talked about that and we can keep coming back to it because things will always tattle on you unless you made them yourself – there’s no reason right now for them *not* to tattle on you. To me, that’s what’s interest in smartness: what happens when a thing that was dumb becomes smart. What does that mean? In that infuriating Matt Jones/Tom Coates/Matt Webb way, what happens when these things become ‘as smart as a puppy’? In other words, when was the last time you looked at a smart thing and you thought: oh, that’s interesting. They’re using smartness *as a material* and you get a visceral, innate sense of the smartness of the thing? You can look at a thing now and say: oh yes, it’s got the *steel* qualia or, let’s be perfectly honest here, if you’re reading this newsletter there’s a fair chance that you have something relatively close to hand that you can say has the *made of milled aircraft grade aluminium* qualia. Do you know of anything made, anything designed by humans, that absolutely has the *made of smart* qualia? What might that thing look like?

But what’s frustrating for me is a preoccupation in the “wearable” area of things that most things need to have a screen. Smartness doesn’t mean having to have a screen. If we had Smart Dogs right now, they’d have screens instead of ears, and they wouldn’t be able to bark in a somewhat indecipherable but yet still full of meaning way, they’d just have a whole bunch of notification icons that would come out of their butt and would all be red circles with numbers in them. In this way, one of the most interesting things to me about the Apple WATCH isn’t the screen – boring – and isn’t even the Digital Crown – also boring from my point of view until I’ve used it – but instead the amusingly named Taptic Engine – the thing that essentially sounds like a finely tuned vibration motor that will creepily feel like someone tapping on your wrist BUT THE TWIST IS THE TAPPING IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE WATCH.

Screens, as I think I’ve said before, are lazy. Imagine a world where every animal didn’t have a face and instead had a screen with icons on it and text that you had to read. Apart from being a logically inconsistent and impossible world (I mean really, how would such animals evolve?), what a *tiresome* world it would be, too. You’d have to *read* all the time. I would love, for example, just to see, just to see someone fucking dare to do it, a smart watch where all it did was display different animated gifs. Of course, in *this* world, we’re not allowed to have such a thing because Jesus Christ can you imagine how much that would cost in copyright clearance. But seriously, Tumblr, get on that right now.

This is why I like GERTY from Duncan Jones’ Moon: that non uncanny valley of hacking at the backdoor vulnerability of us reading emotion and intent and agency into anything that even *looks* like it has a face, as opposed to having to *read* shit, made that movie mean so much more, even if it was voiced by the power-hungry Kevin Spacy.

[1] https://twitter.com/ibogost/status/568205725832511488
[2] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/568497187480604673

Okay. 7:55pm. I just kind of stopped. 2,942 words tonight. See you all tomorrow.

Best,

Dan