Episode One Hundred and Thirty Two: Only 10%; This Hasn’t Benefitted Ordinary Lives As Such

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Earlier this year, on a whim, I’d applied to the Presidential Innovation Fellowship – a program run out of office of the White House. Given how much of a fan I am of the work that the right people, at the right place and the right time can do through an example like the UK Government Digital Service, it felt like something that might be interesting. I got through to the interview process and had what I thought was a pretty good conference call, but yesterday found out that I didn’t make the cut. It would’ve been an interesting experience if I’d gotten in – a 12 month placement, pseudo-dropshipped into the heart of a government agency like NASA or Health and Human Services or the Veterans Administration, and working with an organisation like the GDS-like 18F to get prototypes built quickly, solving real problems for lots of people. But, it turns out, it wasn’t to be. Oh well. Onwards and upwards.

Location: the basement, ripping a Peppa Pig DVD boxset for a forthcoming family flight

1.0 Only 10%

* Spoilers for the Luc Besson 2014 film, Lucy. *

I was out running errands yesterday (“errands” has always felt to me a particularly American word, I’m not sure why) when I got the news about not making the cut for the Fellowship thing, and after doing a bunch of work and sitting on a few telephone calls (as well as stopping by Best Buy where I wasn’t bothered by any assistants *too* much), I decided to go and cheer myself up by watching Scarlett Johansson finally use more than 10% of her brain’s capacity.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.

1. The only way to enjoy this movie is to essentially ignore everything that Morgan Freeman has to say. In this respect, jwz is mostly right[1], but what he fails to say is quite how much Morgan Freeman talks during his movie. I mean, you might think that the poster was bad enough, with its whole “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%”, but let’s be clear: this is the *entire* point of the movie. There’s a lot of ignoring to be getting on with if not just pseudoscience but inaccurate pseudoscience bothers you, and then Besson only goes and doubles-down on the entire thing. He sits there, as Writer/Director, essentially at the poker table, holding a hand that is perhaps only 10% as good as a Royal Flush, slides all of chips over and declares All In.

2. There is a part when Freeman is lecturing to a big crowd, although precisely what kind of crowd he’s lecturing to is unclear – he’s not at a university, and it seems more like a Public Understanding of Science thing, maybe a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. But anyway, a smartly dressed young chap gets up and asks, in an adorbs French accent: “but, this is just a theory, no?” to which there is no reasonable response other than “well, yes, it’s just a theory, but a man’s got to dream, right? Because where are we if we cannot dream? Is that not what Science is?” and then we have to carry on watching the rest of the film.

So, Lucy. Its premise is dumb but only because it feels like it doesn’t have to hang on its premise. The story is about a young woman who’s pretty streetwise and gets in the wrong place at the wrong time thanks to her scumbag of a boyfriend whom she was probably going to dump anyway (“Make good choices, sweetie!”, her mum would say), and before she knows it she’s a drug mule who has a synthetic growth hormone making her jiggle upside down.

Freeman explains to us: imagine what we could do, what we could achieve, the mastery over the universe we might obtain, if we unlocked the full power and potential of our brains. All of these are tied to percentage markers, and there’s literally a bit where Lucy turns into a *progress bar*, as if we needed some sort of visual indicator as to how percentage-complete her progress to ascension to pure energy, existing every where and every when, was.

It’s not a long movie. It’s a moderately interesting movie, but not one that necessarily shows us anything new, and it’s inoffensively enjoyable: there’s a particular good car chase scene in Paris that held my attention and there’s an amusing bit where Lucy essentially spits out a USB stick.

I suppose it just doesn’t *feel* like very much, and the way that Besson brings Lucy’s progress bar of brain capacity usage to life from a visual perspective doesn’t bring anything new to the table. In fact, it looks a bit like an advert for health insurance[2]: in other words, the visual shorthand of the day is seeing data everywhere, and now that we have Smart Things and a Smarter Planet and Smart Everything and we understand that “information” means ones and zeroes, we have somewhat lazy visualizations of what Lucy’s world looks like. In fact they’re not just lazy, they’re disappointing and have that weird kind of European/British sensibility to CGI and visualization that makes them look a bit pants compared to the overly polished stuff coming out of America.

Of course, the alternate theory is that most of the movie is just Lucy tripping balls[3].

For completeness, here’s a bunch of 10% jokes:

– The average KitKat is compose of only 10% matter – over 90% of the space in a KitKat is empty. Imagine if Nestle could unlock all 100%.
– Most people only use 10% of their Facebook profile. Imagine what they could do if they unlocked 100%.
– Most people on average only use 10% of their bowels. Imagine how full of shit they could be if they unlocked 100%.

And finally, Morgan Freeman only reads 10% of his scripts. Imagine what he could accomplish if he read 100% of them. At 30% script capacity, a Morgan Freeman could control not only his own movies, but the entire Hollywood system. At 60%, just his narration would govern the very nature of planets and their orbits (thanks, Tom Coates). And at 75% control, space-time would resonate the vibration of his voice, all matter slowly red-shifting (thanks, Ryan Gantz).

[1] jwz: Lucy
[2] UHC: Health in Numbers
[3] […] CORE

2.0 This Hasn’t Benefitted Ordinary Lives As Such

Here’s a quote from Tyler Cowen as interviewed by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times’ Upshot on income inequality[1]:

“If today we had a rate of technological innovation comparable to say 1890-1930, the middle class and the poor would benefit tremendously from those new goods and services. Income inequality might go up or down but we could stop worrying so much about it.

“That earlier period brought such innovations as electricity, the automobile, radio, the airplane, basic advances in public health, and much better fertilizers, among many others. In more recent times we’ve had a lot of innovations in the manipulation and storage of information, but this just hasn’t benefited ordinary lives as much.”

and then I want to point to this piece by Phil Gyford, where he tries to open a business bank account in the City of London[2]:

“Last week I spent a frustrating morning trying to open a business bank account. I assumed banks would make it as easy as possible and so I was surprised how frustrating it was. I’m easily put off by small but easily-avoidable annoyances and I found plenty of those.”

So here’s the crux of it. When we talk about “productivity gains” from technology, and the linkage of something like Moore’s law – the doubling of transistor count on a certain piece of silicon every 18 months – to the economy and peoples’ lives, it feels like we need to work out exactly where those productivity gains are. There’s a particularly telling phrase in Cowen’s response, where he says “we’ve had a lot more innovations in the manipulation and storage of information, but this just hasn’t benefited ordinary lives as much.”

Let me bring this back to something like GDS – again, like I’m some sort of broken encoded music file stuck on single-track repeat – where they’ve been able to show (at a gross, high level, and principally a political one, at that) that technology can be used *to benefit ordinary lives*. The focus that they’ve got on user needs, on delivery and service, is one that, because of their position in terms of finding better ways of delivering *government services* is one that inherently is to benefit ordinary lives if they’re to succeed.

The information sciences – as they’re applied now, in such a wide manner – do as much to hinder ordinary lives as they do to benefit them. On the one hand, we have the descendent of ARPANET, a multinational, world-circling thread of communication nets wired and wireless that joins billions of people together in more-or-less democratic discourse and commerce (ie: more democratic, and with more access to more people, than anything we’ve had before). But on the other hand, we’ve got bank websites that don’t convey the right information about something that ordinary people have to do every now and then – like open a bank account.

The information sciences – the ones that we get so excited about in terms of ones and zeros and bits and iPhones and tablets –  make it much easier to futz about higher up Maslow’s hierarchy (whether or not you agree they’re truly arranged in a hierarchy, or simply different needs for different people at different times). So you get a lot of Microsoft Publisher and you get a lot of Make-Work – you get systems for the sake of systems, because that’s what a lot of information is: once you’ve got some, you can create lots more of it and you can transform it in practically infinite ways.

In terms of the hard tangible benefits of technology, it feels like we may need a refocussing of effort, lower down the pyramid. This might finally be possible almost because of the futzing around in the meantime: now that we *have* near ubiquitous (but still expensive) wireless access to the network, there are lots more things that we can do. But, in terms of tangible benefits to “ordinary people”, what has technology (or the Romans, I suppose this is sounding like) done for needs like:

– the physiological (breathing, eating, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion); and
– of safety (security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property)

compared to baseline innovations such as “electricity, the automobile, radio, the airplane, basic advances in public health, and much better fertilizers.”

Notice that Cowen doesn’t even include “the telephone” or “television” in his baseline innovations. Electricity, sure. But television is treated as simply radio-plus, and whilst air travel has been somewhat democratised, it’s not entirely cheap. But then, what does it get you?

In other words, we can look at this idea of consumer technology: not necessarily just meaning that it’s stuff that helps us consume consume consume, but that the money, the investment and the return was getting us to buy things that worked way further up the chain. Out of everything in the house that I live in right now, some of the most important things, the things that make a difference, are:

– the washing machine
– the fridge/freezer
– heat, light and water

When our washing machine broke down, it was a *pain in the ass*. Suddenly, so much more time was taken up with doing laundry.

So in terms of improving quality of life for *the ordinary person*, what has consumer technology done? Great, I can find out from the bank’s website that I just have to go to a branch to open a bank account – but it turns out that information is wrong. I can book a plane ticket myself, without having to go to a travel agent. I can do grocery shopping and remain in my seat. I can watch even more television, buy more movies. Ah – and maybe, just maybe, thirty years into the internet, I can find myself gainful employment, or at least make a buck. And through opportunities that didn’t exist before.

But, so far: has the internet made housing cheaper? Has it made public transport (significantly) easier to use, or more accessible? Has a laptop improved the chances of my son getting into a good college, or made him more employable? Has it helped me be more healthy?

Not nearly as much as the productivity gains as Moore’s Law would imply. Not as much as has been breathlessly promised us by the Californian Ideologists. This time, though, they swear it’ll be better.

We’ll see. Our technological reach, it feels to me, far outmatches the extent of our real grasp in terms of using it for the better.

[1] Tyler Cowen on Inequality and What Really Ails America
[2] Visit your nearest branch

I bet some of you disagree with me. Or could present what I just wrote above in a more coherent way. So you should tell me. Hit reply.

Best,

Dan