Episode One Hundred and Ten: Stop Hitting Yourself; Fire; Beyond Thinking Computationally; Snow Crashing (8)

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

NOSTROMO BLACK is calling me over to New York, so it’s a 4:30am wakeup call, breakfast at the airport and a hop, skip and a sitting in the manufactured normalcy field of seat 1A for 5 hours until arriving in the chaos that’s JFK and their taxi line. It’s also Google I/O day, so, aside from the Verge fan fiction[1] and writing this, lots of pondering and thinking. And, hopefully not so much with the deep vein thrombosis, but hey, what’ve you got to do apart from have no legs and die of an embolism.

Oh, in other news, James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn[2] is out, and yay, more Space Opera. And there are some *very* good Jim Holden lines in it.

And then on top of *that*, because I have a silly attention span, I haven’t even finished my Snow Crashing series of picking apart Neal Stephenson’s seminal work and now I’m thinking of doing a Pattern Recognising series to do the same to William Gibson’s series[3].

And it looks like yesterday’s episode was trapped inside Gmail’s Promotions tab, in all likelihood because of all the Amazon affiliate reading list links I stuffed into it. So, I guess, Bad Dan, no college fund for Calvin, you should check the Promotions tab every now and then.

[1] Hey, Remember That Time Google Accidentally Made Skynet?

[2] Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

[3] Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

Altitude: 34,979 feet

Ground speed: 596mph

1.0 Stop Hitting Yourself

Look, just stop hitting yourself, advertising industry. I feel a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but this “advice and wisdom” from Peter Levitan[1] perhaps one of the silliest posts that I’ve seen about how the agencies should be hiring “computer scientists and developers” before filling creative or account management positions. It’s just so confused and smacks of someone who doesn’t completely understand what’s going on and instead wants to help agencies show that they “get digital”. In other words: more suggestions for organisational change that don’t, well, help to change an organisation.

Levitan says that part of the reason for this is Because Apple, which is smacks a little of bandwagon jumping. The first bit just feels like a non-sequitur (Apple just had its developer conference, where it announced things for developers, just the same as it has *every single year*, and just the same as Microsoft and Google and everyone else who does developer outreach).

The second is that Apple’s MarCom division has recently expanded its agency roster by adding AKQA, Huge, Area 17 and Kettle. This is whilst Apple is really quite obviously staffing up and jump-balling creative assignments between its internal capability and MAL. So yeah, Apple’s (read: Phil Schiller) has ideas about how marketing and advertising can change in the post-Steve era and the post-Todd Pendleton era of directing Samsung into a shock-and-awe campaign that bombed Apple into submission.

It is not clear, at the moment, what the new digital agencies are going to do for Apple. Certainly some of their web stuff has been impressive – everyone was wowed by the Mac Pro Snowfall-esque scrolling extravaganza. And similar efforts have shown up for the Mac anniversary mini-campaign. But it would be pretty inoffensive to say that Apple’s good at knowing what it wants and directing its external partners.

So Levitan says that agencies “need computer scientists and programmers” to “take advantage of iOS and deliver the programming to make it happen”. But that says nothing of what the strategy of delivery would, or should, be, or what the briefs are that are being assigned to these agencies. What problems are they being asked to solve that *require computer scientists and programmers*?

Where it gets really funny for me is in the tone of Levitan’s advice as to how agencies should attract computer scientists and engineers because, in his own words, “these guys are hard to interest, to hire and, well, afford.” Let’s leave aside the possibly sexism in “guys” because that would just be mean. Levitan says agencies should do this:

Really entice them by telling them you are going to build something really special. Really special.

This is quite simply some of the *silliest* advice and, if I were a computer scientist or an engineer who’s relatively smart, I’d be asking: why are you just *telling* me you’re going to build something really special? Where’s the evidence that you’re going to build something really special? And why would an agency be a better place than somewhere like a startup where *even* though it’s a crapshoot, at least you have a crapshoot of a WhatsApp, rather than, you know, toiling away at an agency.

And then, what’s that special thing? Is this some kind of stupid bait and switch? Or, you know, is this advertising at its worst (and, funnily, *exactly* the kind of advertising that stereotypically turns off computer scientists and engineers) by more or less lying. You *said* you were going to build something really special. Where is it? And do you know how to build it?

Fire a couple of people and pay them the going rate.

If, you know, you’re happy with disrupting the finely balanced pay scale of everyone else at the agency and suddenly hiring in a bunch of people who’re being paid a lot more than everyone else.

Give them some equity.

And, as above, answer to everyone: why are the computer scientists and engineers getting equity if no-one else in the agency is?

Levitan provides three bait-and-switch ways to get people *in the door* and there’s no real advice as to how to effect real organisational change. Because, you know, that would be hard, and would require you to think about *why* and *what* sort of digital solutions to advertising briefs make sense, are the right thing to do for your client *and are sellable*.

Because the deal with those computer scientists and engineers is this: they don’t need you. They can make things and ship them on their own. So what do you possibly have to offer them?

Or, you know, you could go out to a monthly programmer, mobile or startup event and “look like an agency that ‘gets it'”.

[1] Advertising Agencies: Your Next Hire Should Be A Nerd

2.0 Fire

Ben Thompson has written about Amazon’s Fire phone[1]. Thompson’s theory – or, at least, the one that he thinks best fits the evidence and is most indicative of Amazon doing something sane – that their new phone is for whales, a segment of their customers that we’ve seen before from social gaming, and before that, casinos and gambling. Whales are your outliers – the small percentage of customers who spend an outsized amount and are disproportionately profitable.

In this fitting of the facts, Thompson’s theory is that Amazon’s going to super-serve their whales in the belief that they love Amazon so much that they’ll buy the phone, too, and that a physical device will deepen their relationship with the retailer and the money will flow forth. The whales will get whalier.

I think Thompson’s right in his thinking that the Fire phone is as compelling a phone as you can get without investing as much as Google and Apple have done into the entire system: no matter the technology that’s been invented and integrated into the new device, features like Dynamic Perspective are wow bells-and-whistles that aren’t big enough differentiators. High-end Android phones and iPhones are better and I’m not quite sure what position you’re in if both the apps available on iOS *and* Android are better (or more visible, even) than the ones on your own platform. Whether that puts you ahead or behind of Windows Phone or Blackberry feels somewhat academic at this point. (There’s also the issue of whether or not having a vibrant – or even viable – app ecosystem is important to the user of an Amazon Fire phone and how much work it takes to port an Android app over and support Amazon’s store.)

But where I do think Thompson has missed a trick is that he doesn’t go quite far enough in comparing the Fire Phone to Facebook’s efforts with Home and the HTC First. I don’t think it’s an irrelevant segue into semantics to question whether people *love* Facebook or not in his statement “just because people love Facebook didn’t mean they wanted Facebook to dominate their phone, and by extension, their lives.” Because it’s not clear that people do love Facebook – indeed, that was a large part of our work in terms of user trust.

The data show that people *use* Facebook a lot. It’s an entirely different matter as to whether or not they *love* Facebook. And that, I feel, is an important difference. This is becoming a tired example, but I *use* Comcast and Verizon every day, but I’m not sure if I love them or not. In the particular market dynamics that they operate where the barrier to entry is high, I’m a captive customer from Comcast’s point of view for wireline broadband services (at least, I am until Portland’s city council completely submits and welcomes Google Fiber with open arms).

Amazon is obviously not a company with a local, physical monopoly. There are clearly other retailers to buy from on the internet. But it’s worth unpicking why customers choose to deal with you when you’re expanding into another area where you don’t have a pre-existing relationship. The goodwill, it feels, must be pretty significant. So the question is this: do Prime users *love* Amazon, or do they pay for Prime primarily because it is convenient?

A familiar refrain by now from me is that it is easy to disguise love – and loyalty – for utility when you have service relationships conducted over the ‘net. I think this explains the predilection people have for describing online audiences as fickle and jumping from one service to another: the canonical example is the Friendster to Myspace to Facebook train of social networking and communications. But I think saying the audience is fickle is an easy way out – each of these services did the job better than the previous, *and* there was not enough extant love or loyalty to act as a reason to stay.

This isn’t an either/or binary situation. These effects are additive. All I’m saying is that I don’t think you can rely on just one or the other: clearly and ideally you want to offer more utility as well as goodwill that makes that transition to a new product or service easier.

The biggest issue – and example of hubris that I see – is that Amazon have seen fit to emblazon the Fire Phone with the Amazon logo on the back. I’m really, really not sure that people are ready to be seen with a phone that shows their relationship with a retailer (even if that retailer’s logotype has a smile and, well, does slightly more things than just sell things these days). I’m not that worried about a 45 minute keynote to introduce a phone – companies regularly have self-important moments, and in the grand scheme of things, they should figure out things like the logo rather than the event length.

Friends in the UK have quipped that it’s a bit like flashing a phone that says Tesco Value on the back (or, I guess, Wal-Mart) and whilst I acknowledge that this probably sounds pretty snobby of me, people care about appearance. In other words, it doesn’t just matter if *I* don’t mind that my phone says Amazon on its back, it matters what I think *you* think that my phone says Amazon on its back. What does that say about me? You also have to wonder what including the logo on the back is intended to achieve.

Of course, perhaps this doesn’t matter as much. Perhaps Amazon’s famously unlabeled-on-the-y-axis graphs of tens of millions of Prime subscribers and Kindle/Fire-family devices really don’t care. And I’ve certainly seen a number of Fire tablets on flights and airport waiting areas. But again, there’s something that’s still qualitatively different about a phone, than a tablet.

[1] Amazon’s Whale Strategy

3.0 Beyond Thinking Computationally

I had a reader write back asking what I meant by “thinking computationally” as opposed to “learning to code”. Part of the objection (or more accurately, clarification) that I have about the learning to code movement is that, at its worst it feels like yet more education-for-the-industrial-age of rote learning and of sending its students down to the code mills to learn how to make a website using a Javascript framework without particularly *understanding* what, why and how.

But, I realise, there’s something more than just “thinking computationally” and things like logic, identifying a goal and breaking that goal down into its constituent parts and conditions and so on. It’s more about an understanding of the way a computer works and the components you have from which to build your solution.

So when the email pinged onto my phone as I was halfway through the jetbridge, I realised: it’s things like – this is what a web browser does *and how it works*. This is how computer vision works: it can look for high contrast things, it can key out background, it can look for edges and so on. This is how listening works: you filter out unwanted frequencies and you use Fast Fourier Transforms. This is how hardware works, you have a sensor that’s a three-axis accelerometer, and you can read data from it quickly or slowly. This is how Bluetooth works. This is how natural language processing works, this is how you count the number of lines, this is how you look for statistically significant phrases, this is how you get an image, this is what you can do to an image and these are things you can do to an image on a device because they’re easy, these are things you can to do an image on a server because they’re harder. This is what a big thing is, this is what a small thing is. This is fast to do, this is slow to do. If you want to move this on a screen, how hard is it? I mean, you can *do* it, but we could do it with CoreAnimation (mostly easy), or we could do it five years ago using Javascript and Canvas and, well, a stupendously talented JS/HTML developer, or we could do it now using an off-the-shelf framework. If we want to listen to audio, can we do that in a web browser? Well, quickly, on a desktop browser, probably. On a mobile device? Probably want to do it native because it’s faster. Why is it faster? How do I get this phone here to talk to that browser window there? What are web sockets? How fast does it take to make one, to use it, to tear it down? What if it doesn’t work? Can I use the camera? Well, in a web browser, but it depends which one. Can I recognise a face? If we use this off-the-shelf thing. Where can we use the face-recognising thing? Well, we could use it here or there…

It takes a moment to step back and take a look at all the junk that’s accumulated from twenty odd years of being interested in tech and reading stuff like Hacker News and Slashdot and god knows what else. There’s so many tools. So many bits and pieces, loosely joined. And, at least, the way that I think about the *thing* that something does is as much assembling the bits together in a novel combination as it is the wrapping that goes around, inside and through that thing that’s made, that dictates the why and also the how.

So, some simple things. A story from one of my friends about how once someone asked if you could have a triangular web browser. Because, you know, advertising. And the answer isn’t *no*. It’s “well, you *can*” and things like Kai’s Power Tools certainly don’t help. So, you need to understand why the answer isn’t no, and why the answer isn’t an easy yes. It’s because you read things like Neal Stephenson’s In The Beginning Was The Command Line that talk about the almost Tower of Babel-like abstractions that sit on top of each other that let you get stuff done.

So you can’t have a triangular browser for reasonable variables of time and money because: computers run operating systems and operating systems have application programming interfaces that are guidelines and foundations for how you put things on the screen because otherwise you just spend all day figuring out what pixel to put where and what colour and Jesus Christ is that tedious, so a lot of that stuff is done for you so it’s *easy* to put a rectangular window (or a roundrect window) up, but *hard* to do a round window or a triangular window because the framework isn’t there, but if you *wanted* to, if you really, really wanted to, you could do it yourself but, well, *sucks* that’s a right job guvnor now I’m going outside for a fag.

(And that’s before you get into *really* silly stuff like, “well where do I put the scroll bars?” to which some smartass will invariably reply “where Apple put them”).

So it’s not so much learning to code. It’s knowing – again – what the materials are. What the components are. Code is the material that you make components out of so that you can reuse them again or combine them in different ways.

I’m not a materials scientist, but I imagine it’s knowing what to use for what thing: (ugh, thing). You know. This has this tensile strength. This has that, uh, hardness. Flex. Shine. Conductivity. All of those properties. And it doesn’t help that the whole field of software engineering is, to be honest, a big goddamn fucking mess.

It’s back to materials and systems, all over again.

[1] In The Beginning… Was The Command Line by Neal Stephenson

4.0 Snow Crashing (8)

Last episode of Snow Crashing we were pointing at the FQNEs and laughing until the world went all Free Trade Zone on us and people joked about Peter Thiel’s island and seasteading and Google buying Detroit.

So anyway, Y.T.’s on her way to jail and the MetaCops are trying to work out which sub-contracted private jail Y.T.’s having her ass remanded to, and Y.T. attempts to negotiate as one rational actor with another as to circumventing this whole sub-contracted law-enforcement business and we get a mini-lesson in hyperinflation. A trillion bucks and the MetaCops will take her to a Hoosegow, Y.T. bargains them down to seven hundred and fifty billion and – retro! – *swipes* her card in the slot on the back of the card because again, radio-wave and wireless transmission is something that was hard to predict, and the economy runs on magnetised credit cards. Well, we don’t know for sure that they’re magnetised, but we do know that the physical intent and motion is there. Stephenson is taking the familiar and pushing it, here. Remember, this is 1992, and credit cards only had been around for about a decade.

Funnily, the Hoosegaw’s logo (lit up in brilliant light outside the franchise) sports a black cowboy hat resting at a jaunty angle, proving that media company or no, Yahoo!’s presence will live on in the future. Hoosegaw lives in a world of branded differentiation, so it’s got a faux rustic feel – employees wear cowboy hats, five-pointed stars with names embossed on them. And Y.T. gets to use a coin-operated (coins!) TV (TV!) with a private phone (land!) line.

We get another barcode scanner – another visible example of data in the real world, this one zaps the barcode on, well, Y.T. – the one that’s embedded in her passport and identification documents (that are externally visible? Presumably because she’s a thrasher and zipping about making deliveries the whole time and having them visible makes for expedited access), and “hundreds of pages about Y.T.’s personal life zoom up on a graphics screen”.

Again, there’s this whole notion – even in Stephenson’s world of an America where one of the few things it’s good at is microcode – of delineated screens. It’s a graphics screen here or a TV screen there – but in a world of bits, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter without reason or the odd Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding.

Y.T. doesn’t get into the Hoosegaw, unfortunately. She blips up as female – an example of computer says no, the guy behind the desk at the franchise has to see it on a screen before he sees what’s in front of him – and Y.T.’s disappointedly on her way to the Clink after having looked forward to a nice meal at the Hoosegaw, which was beginning to sound more and more like a themed hotel and not, as Stephenson says, the occasional place to habeas a stray corpus.

We get to see the thing closest to a gross QR code out in the wild – on the way to The Clink, they pass under “a square illuminated logo, a giant Universal Product Code in black-on-white with Buy’n’Fly underneath it”.

We play with the hyper-corporatised world a bit more – Y.T. accuses the MetaCop of credit card fraud for ultimately taking her to The Clink and we see how the justice system now acts with a mention of Judge Bob’s Judicial System. Folksy, friendly names. Everybody knows a Bob! Bob will treat you fairly!

And then that’s it – Y.T.’s in The Clink. And it’s our first mention of the Dentata.

Phew, okay! Fun! Go team. Good job everyone, take a break, send me some notes and we’ll see each other in meeting room A bright and early tomorrow morning. Denise will bring bagels and I’ll bring the coffee.

Best,

Dan