Episode One Hundred and Seventy Two: Week One; Universal Basic; Karen 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

11:08pm on a Friday night and after an unplanned hiatus due to, amongst other things, illness. I have to admit: I tried starting this episode a whole bunch of times this week, and it’s acutely preying on me that this – on a Friday night – is the first episode that I’ve written this week. In the past hundred and seventy-odd episodes, I haven’t had a four-day break before. And a lot of shit’s gone down.

But, here I am. This is me trying to remember that the point of this was to *just write*, and whilst there might be a tonne of stuff going on, I’m still going to try and *just write* anyway.

1.0 Week One

I started the new job “for real” this week – Content Director at Code for America, putting my typing-for-coins where my fingers and my mouth are and re-emerging through some sort of capitalist chrysalis through the other side into a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

There was a weird feeling as I started on Monday morning – the flight into SFO delayed as usual thanks to Karl the Fog, and bumping into a bunch of ex-colleagues from Wieden+Kennedy, doing the same day trip that I used to do to present to clients at Facebook. Plus ça change, I suppose. But Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (and the preceding weekend) were taken with the usual man-lurgy, the kind that women know about because when it comes down to it, it’s just a cold or not even the flu but still the kind of thing that lays most men useless and snivelling.

There’s not *that many* people at Code for America. There’s probably around thirty-odd staff, but the building is shared at any time with Fellows and startups that are being incubated. Senior staff aren’t that big a number, and it’s not like I didn’t already know a bunch of people I now find myself working with having bumped into them, on and off, during the summit the previous week.

It was a different feeling though: when I started at Wieden in Portland, I had kind of been doing the job as an Advertising Person at their office in London, and had even come out a couple times, once on a Coke brief and the other time on What Crazy Thing Should We Do Next On Old Spice brief. But I knew, kind of, what I was supposed to be doing because there was all this extant structure. In the case of the Portland office, it was around thirty years of institutional advertising that had accreted, not only in terms of the walls of the building and the physical layout but also The Way Things Are Done. And part of the fun bit of the job was demolishing that, but knowing that part of the job was being able to come in and ask stupid questions.

This time, there are kind-of stupid questions in a “why are we doing things this way” but the answers aren’t quite as institutional because the organisation is only a few years old, and what it’s going through is more of your standard maturation phase as a startup (or, as most other people would call it, a young organisation) starts to grow up both in terms of age and number.

But here’s the thing about this particular job. I’m defining it in terms of how easy it is for people to understand and to copy what the organisation does. What my team will produce is *understanding* and *copying*. Not lines of code. Sometimes it will involve things like locking people in a room and thinking really hard and then coming out two weeks later with *three words*. And they’ll be *really good words*, and they’ll be words that totally help with the understanding and the copying. But the words on their own won’t be a product or a service or marketing, they’ll still need to exist somewhere out there in the world.

And, funnily enough, a (in retrospect) stupid conversation with my wife about how everyone was kind of looking at me to Make Decisions and Be In Charge, and that I’d felt that I’d never actually done that before when – as she pointed out – didn’t I co-found a startup? Wasn’t I the COO who made sure things were moving in the background at another? Didn’t I Creative Direct teams and get a whole shit-tonne of stuff done?

Well, yeah.

So: week one. Meetings and greetings and coffees and listening and sponging and absorbing and translating and settling and writing and scribbling and drawing and sketching and setting up laptops, wrangling Dropboxes, getting Yet Another Google Apps^WFor Work account, flexing github muscles that haven’t been touched in *years*, peering at a new work laptop (the 11in Macbook Air isn’t as small or as light as it feels it should be, next to a 13in Retina Macbook Pro), waiting for 1Password to sync all the things that I’ve outsourced to an outboard enciphered brain.

And then: the room with the stickies. The one where four people deconstruct the entire organisation on 3M-manufactured bits of paper and then move them around until they make some sort of sense, and then the New Labels and New Descriptions of things, the This Is What We Do Now, the heading back to Portland and the remote Hangings Out and one-on-ones and the inexorable feeling of building up momentum, of the kind where you want it described as an appreciably portion of c where if you want to stop or slow down you’re going to have to flip around, do a one eighty and then *burn hard*.

Right. Moving now.

Making more understanding.

2.0 Universal Basic

Universal basic income, smartphone and data. The question that if you were going to throw a whole bunch of money at developing infrastructure for a new country or trying to make sure that you stayed ahead of the game, that if you were going to tear everything down or at least start to build a new layer on top of the old, what might that be? The feeling that more and more people are starting to say that perhaps we’re really going to need those social safety nets, perhaps universal basic income is one of the ways to do things, and then what?

And then universal basic data? Universal basic ways of navigating the world? What tools does a government give a citizen to navigate a world with? It’s not like we’ve moved past the time where people no longer scoff at saying that “internet access is a human right” – especially when it’s said by the new conglomerates that we’re increasingly feeling uneasy about – but then we think about all the things that are accomplished via internet access, the way that access to the world is mediated by the digital and then what?

In what now feels like a certain heyday of the UK there was the Great Analogue Switchoff – the event where analogue terrestrial broadcasts were finally stopped to make way for another Great Spectrum Auction, the new one-time, one-shot way in which governments tentatively stepping into the digital age might make some money, by freeing up all that wasteful analogue stuff and switching over to the shiny new digital distribution network – so much more efficient, so much tighter, so much more capacity. And it was a big deal and it was done slowly and it meant that your TV might not work anymore or you needed a box and television, well, that was a thing that most people had, that was an important thing.

Free bus passes for seniors. Free smartphones. Free data.

3.0 Karen

Karen[1] is not Samantha[2], but Blast Theory are. You should probably keep an eye on this.

[1] Karen from Blast Theory
[2] Are these feelings real?

Friday. See you on Monday.

Dan