Episode One Hundred and Twelve: Probationary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; The Blog Unbundled; A World of Connected Objects

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m an hour out of getting back to Portland for the weekend before I inevitably end up going back down to the Bay Area on Monday. I miss my son dearly – he’s taken to walking around and putting things in other things, just the mere concept of walking around while carrying something is so novel and amazing to him that at time it’s hilarious and he just bursts out laughing.

Ground speed: 476mph

Battery life: 20%

Diet Coke: in hand

1.0 Probationary Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

(This contains spoilers for the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you care, but have not yet seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier *and* Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then a) what are you doing, and b) skip to 2.0)

Well, technically, not S.H.I.E.L.D., but S.T.A.T.I.O.N., the Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network.[1]

I’m a late-developing comic book fan, but it’d be fair to say that I am *this* into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In theory, something like Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (I’m not going to keep up with the full stops in the acronyms), an immersive exhibit that not only shows off props from the movies, but builds a narrative around it (enlist as a probationary agent, explore Dr. Banner and Stark’s labs, learn about the SSR and so on, would be super exciting.

And it was *kind of* super exciting. I mean, the music helped. Pulling the themes and motifs from each character (Captain America, The Avengers, Iron Man and Thor – not quite sure what they did about the Hulk) really helped set the scene. The set design was pretty good. Lots of displays everywhere that made you feel like you were on the set of a SHIELD installation. I mean you obviously *weren’t* on a SHIELD installation, so we’re talking like 85% of a Disney Parks effort, but, you know, the whole thing was dressed well. There were things that felt like the inside of shipping containers hastily dropped in admittedly prime real estate at Times Square and the requisite Goes-Nowhere-Does-Nothing conduits that make the place look and feel all militaristic.

I was disappointed that when I peered up against the retina scanners at each entryway they didn’t go red or green.

But then there were the niggles, the remaining 15% that just made the whole thing feel more like a missed opportunity to achieve something truly special.

Whilst there were large plasma screens everywhere showing whizzy motion graphics, the graphics hadn’t been composed for the physical screen resolution – so they’d been interpolated and scaled up to the extent that you couldn’t read the tiny text anymore, having been mushed into some sort of anti-aliased bicubic who is your Helvetica Neue god now slurry.

What I’m saying is: if you’re going to the extent of creating fake Hydra documents and showing the baseball cards that Coulson collected and letting people *read what’s on them*, then you should pretty much make sure that you can read whether it’s sensor A/11/98/B that’s showing a gamma ray spike in Lahore or, well, any other sensor.

It’s interesting because STATION is like a commercial museum exhibit – like The Art Of The Brick, or Sherlock Holmes, and the temptation is to think of it as a ride, too. There are nice touches, but ultimately the whole package feels like it’s ultimately let down by execution in technology rather than a failure of vision.

So you walk up, at the beginning, to a kiosk and enter your details to get a provisional badge. The badge has a QR code and RFID so you can be identified at the various interactive stations through the exhibit – either through inserting it like a credit card, or touching to an RFID reader, or scanning the QR code. The information used from the badge ID can also be pulled in from Facebook, giving you the opportunity to allow a STATION application to post to your timeline.

There’s a nice bit at the beginning where you’re spoken to by someone who’s impersonating a training camp drill sergeant (all attendants are wearing STATION AGENT garb with requisite earpieces) who congratulates you on becoming a probationary STATION agent, reminds you of the top-secret nature of the place and that you’ll be in big trouble if you take out your cellphone and photograph or record anything. Because, you know, it’s not like you’ve been infiltrated by a terrorist organisation bent on remaking the world order or anything. But hey: I tried saying Hail Hydra to a few people and didn’t get much of a reaction, so perhaps STATION is one of the non-bad-apples.

All of this is inside something suspiciously similar to the dimensions of a shipping container (I’m so flirty with shipping containers it’s a bit embarassing) which was exciting, and then we get a bit of cutscene video where someone tells us what the purpose of STATION is – that it was set up in the wake of the attack on Earth to provide scientific and tactical backup to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

I have to admit to feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance in the first room. It feels like a history exhibit (and, in a way, it is) because we’re learning about World War 2, a real thing that happened, where bad things were done by a lot of people, and a lot of people died. Now, some of that was because of HYDRA and the Red Skull, you see, and at this point I’m thinking: this might not matter so much to me, the only adult in our group not being escorted by children, but, you know, HYDRA wasn’t real.

This’ll crop up again later.

But, part of me is screaming: this doesn’t matter, because they’re playing Captain America’s theme and there’s a photo of Howard and Peggy on the wall over there because we’re learning about the founding of the Strategic Science Reserve and I’m all *swoon*.

You get to see the costumes – I mean uniforms – of Black Widow, Hawkeye, Maria Hill, Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. You get to see Tony’s armor, and you get to use a particle accelerator he’s installed to discover a new element. You get to compare your physical attributes to Captain America – grip strength, reaction time, height and weight, galvanic skin response and all that sort of stuff.

Most of the Captain America tests were fine – apart form the reaction time one, which was essentially a whack-a-mole test produced *incredibly poorly* on a touchscreen that didn’t register touches, and you were left thinking: am I *supposed* to only score zero?

There’s a bit where you can stand in front of something that’s probably hooked up to a Kinect and see how you’d do at piloting one of Tony’s suits. And there’s a Head-Up Display mockup, which uses (very bad) eye tracking and blink tracking using an EEG for you to move a cursor around a screen.

It doesn’t work.

By “it doesn’t work,” I mean: it goes through a calibration process where you look at the corners of the screen and then *stupidly*, positions the menu items in the farthest corners of the screen where it’s actually possible that due to bad calibration, you can’t actually move the cursor to them.

And then it doesn’t recognise your blinks anyway.

Which, you know, is just irritating.

There’s a replica suit hand that you’re supposed to be able to control, but it had a piece of letter-sized paper and a laser-printed note on it saying that the station was being “recalibrated”.

One of the screens had a LogMeIn Hamachi prompt and an explorer window open showing stuff like IronManHandv3.exe and for a moment I wasn’t *entirely* sure whether it was supposed to look like that. Then I realised duh, Tony doesn’t use Windows, Stark Industries uses the Oracle Cloud.

Another bit of cognitive dissonance was a giant display – an amazing one, really, with some touchscreens of Nasa’s Kepler program, teaching kids about the planets we’ve found in the universe. Complete with live data and the most recent discoveries!

Around the back was an exhibit about the nine worlds of Yggdrasil.

Loki’s sceptre was there, which poses important questions like: aren’t HYDRA supposed to have it now? At least they didn’t have the Tesseract.

Item 47 there, as was a little card talking about Agent Sitwell’s role in recovering it, and I shook my head, because Sitwell.

(The whole thing appeared to run on Windows and Android/Windows Tablets). Touchscreens didn’t feel particularly responsive, the interfaces weren’t great (some scrolly text that you couldn’t work out how to scroll). Basically, unsurprisingly and depressingly, most stuff on screens that was interactive was disappointing.

Nick Fury’s coat looks to be made out of some sort of carbon fiber weave which makes me desperately want one, and his trousers are so tactical as to practically require a DANGER CLOSE warning area around them.

The gift shop made it *really* hard for me to spend money. I mean, really hard. Most of the t-shirts were tat, apart from the fact that one of the attendants managed to persuade me that because this was specially licensed Marvel merchandise for the exhibit, I wouldn’t be able to get a t-shirt with the SHIELD logo on it anywhere else.

I really wanted a t-shirt with the SHIELD logo on it, even though it only came in grey or white and I really wanted a black one.

Anyway, that’s my report of The Time I Tried Out To Be A Shield Agent And Decided To Not Buy The Badge I Got Because It Was Like Thirty Bucks.

Oh, right, at the beginning there’s an especially stupid bit where you stand in front of a green screen and have *no idea* what backdrop they’re going to drop behind you (spoilers: it’s not goatse) and it turns out the reason why they want you to strike a superhero pose is because you’re surrounded to the left and right by striding-toward-the-camera Avengers and the Hulk behind you and it just looks terrible. Like, really terrible.

7/10 if you’re a regular person, 8/10 if you’re a Marvel geek, 5/10 if you’re a Marvel geek with high standards who’s constantly disappointed with the world.

[1] Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (this is a terrible website, I’m only linking you to it out of a sake of completeness)

2.0 The Blog Unbundled

Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss by Joanne McNeill on Medium[1] is the latest look at an anecdotal resurgence of the newsletter personal publishing trend. McNeill does a good job of describing the trend to which I have to admit I feel like a latecomer when I started writing here in January earlier this year.

McNeill says that she feels like she knew what a blog was in 2002 (I’m guessing the reverse-chronological collection of posts, generally run by an individual for individual expression), in 2008 (when more corporate entities starting doing them and a year after Tumblr’s launch, two years after Twitter’s launch), but now, she’s not quite sure. It’s not defined by the software that powers it, because blogging software, like most software, inevitably became a CMS and ended up, as she points out, becoming a significant proportion of the web. And also, as she notes,

“It isn’t a place for short links, because that is Twitter. Tumblr and Instagram took over for photoblogs. And those long personal essay/personal rant posts that people would write every once in a while — those are happening here on Medium instead of our own websites. Specific products are driving the content.”

I think if McNeill had pulled on that thread a bit longer, she’d have come to the conclusion that the behaviour of blogging (which for the sake of argument we’ll say originally meant personal self-expression through publishing mediated by the internet) has become unbundled from its original monolith providers.

Twitter, again, has separated out the short-form quips and quotes that would’ve been short alongside a medium (you can see where this is going) or long-form blog post, and obviously done it better. Self-hosted WordPress for such a type of content is a special form of overkill for the masochistic.

Tumblr, likewise, has been able to focus on short-form text and image-based blogging, as well as offering a space for intense expression of personality, emotion and feeling, along with a built-in method of quickly spreading specific ideas in a way that never existed in Blogging Classic.

We all know about Instagram, and, well, Medium pretty much explains itself. No matter how many problems Medium may have about how it’s perceived, it does do two things very well: allow you a (marginally) better opportunity to attract attention, if not a recurring audience, than if you self published, and a stupendously good composing interface, combined with none of headache of keeping up with the latest WordPress vulnerabilities or dealing with updating Akismet to make sure you’re not inadvertently publishing spam comments.

Secret, for what it’s worth, and the other host of anonymous-ish publishing apps again unbundle the anonymous blog, without any perceived notions of having to deal with identity, as well as providing a platform and opportunity for the original publisher to receive a degree of positive feedback in the form of likes and comments.

So, what have TinyLetter (and, by extension, MailChimp) found themselves with? What part of the blogging experience did they unbundle?

I’d argue that they unbundled the audience connection. I’ve said it before, but here are the things that I like – whether *you* like them or not – about the newsletter/tinyletter format from a personal publishing point of view.

– it provides audience metrics (to the extent that one cares about audience metrics) in a qualitatively different way than RSS ever did. Unless you used a service like Feedburner, you never really knew how many people were reading your content (ugh, that word) over RSS. And what you *really* didn’t know was who they were. Behind each and every single subscriber I get, there’s an email address. There are real people behind those subscriptions, and, with a little Googling, I can find out who they are, should I wish. Used to be, the only way you’d know if someone was reading your blog was if they told you, either through linking, commenting, trackbacking (trackbacking!) or including you in their linkroll (linkroll!). Or, you know, you could be super anal about it and take a look through your webserver logs and look at breakdowns over domains, but that’s a bit high-level.

– it’s innately biased in favour of high outward, low inward traffic. By that, I mean that the newsletter is broadcast, and one doesn’t have to worry about replies because: have you seen internet comments lately? In any event, the default nature of *not* publishing comments means that again, the nature of the publisher/reader/audience relationship is changed. I can choose to ask for replies – and they can be done very easily by just, you know, hitting reply, but also I don’t have to publish them unless I want to. Commenters have a relationship with me, not with the rest of the internet as well.

– the reading experience is different. In theory, of course, if you’re reading on mobile you’re one click away from anything else through your home button. Or, if you’re on a desktop/laptop, you’re still one click away to anything else. But the nature of a newsletter is that it will be mainly experienced inside the context of email. And, I’ve found, for my longform newsletters, my audience have generally gotten the idea that the *point* is that they’re long. And I make a point of not embedding links in the middle of the text, because to me, these act more like conversations that don’t have branching off points. For me, I choose to put links in footnotes, because, hey, I’m talking: pay attention.

Those are just some of the things that I like about the Tinyletter format. There’s the minimalist composing interface, and there’s the general lack of bells and whistles. It feels more like “write here, send there”, rather than the monster that something like WordPress has come into. The rest of what I like about it, though, is idiosyncratic to me, I feel: the fact that I’ve built a daily practice into writing and am using the medium as a way to explore my own thoughts and not *completely* just punditing from upon high.

But McNeill has another point, which is that blogging in 2003, before social media, felt like it was “just us”. The community was self-selecting, and I can talk at length about the early community and friendships that formed amongst bloggers in the UK in the late 90s early ’00s, many of whom remain incredibly close. At the same time, though, McNeill’s wrong: even by 2003 there were some of us who were worried about getting rape threats and getting abuse online from those who stumbled upon their online personae.

Anyway, I don’t think social media was the downfall of the era of close-group blogging. It was the fact that the internet finally did what it was supposed to, and started to hit a mass audience. 2003 was around the time that broadband really started taking off. 2007/8 was around the time that internet access through something that people wanted and were familiar with – their phones – became accessible both in usability and in cost. The reason why the internet felt like drinking with friends early on is that there just weren’t that many people there. A sort of Fermi paradox of online community: we were early, we were alone, and then the universe grew up and the aliens came.

So McNeill’s right, in a way: “we subscribe to newsletters because we like someone and take interest in their unique point of view.” And a relationship is able to form without it *having* to be in the open. Quite why it’s taken this long to happen, is a bit strange – it’s not like newsletters hadn’t existed before. But perhaps we needed to get used to the idea of publishing out in the open, before we published out in the semi-open.

McNeill talks, in the end, about missing the comments section, and missing, I think, the feel of discovery of like-minded people. For me, it feels like that part of the internet – finding like-minded people – was unbundled out of blogging a long time ago and moved elsewhere. Right now, it feels like it’s more on Twitter than anywhere else. Unlike McNeill, I have a private Twitter account alongside my public account – a friends and family only account – for which some people feel like is a way of doing Twitter wrong; that anything I’m afraid of saying on the internet, or out loud in anyway, is perhaps something I shouldn’t be saying. But, I’m only human and I can’t help myself, and I have an instinctual need to connect on a closer level with people I trust.

On the other hand, I’ve never felt like I would lose my job over something I did online. I know I’m lucky that way. I also know that I feel I’m not likely to do anything spectacularly stupid and that I’ve got a reasonable sense of judgment as to what spectacularly stupid things might be. But I’ve always, more or less, been able to speak my mind. And whilst this newsletter has been a way for *me* to find more likeminded people, it hasn’t been a great way for those of my readers to find each other. At least, not yet. Perhaps that’s something TinyLetter might look into: discussion forums for readers.

[1] Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss by Joanne McNeill

3.0 A World Of Connected Objects

Tom Coates, prompted by Matt Jones, has helpfully written up notes of his talk at this year’s FOO camp on the subject of helping people see and understand the normal behaviour of objects in our new future: conversing and being controlled over the network[1].

Coates has been thinking about this for a while along with a bunch of others, Ben Cerveny, Matt Jones, Kati London and Matt Biddulph to name a few. He starts by setting up the basic premise: a world not so soon from now where objects are not just made of physical materials, but also have the material of connectivity woven into them. There’s a basic set of attributes that such objects have that one should be able to query, and manners in which one should be able to control and be notified by them.

There’s a lot that’s interesting here. The anthropomorphism and animism of such objects, axes of verbosity and personality layered on top of that, and the realisation, of course, that a world full of incessantly chattering objects perhaps best illustrated by Douglas Adams’ Genuine People Personalities, would in all likelihood be one that was unbearable.

Coates notices something that I think I touched on (although hadn’t really expanded upon) when I talked about Google and its purchase of Nest and, again, user trust and empathy. Coates remarks that he hadn’t anticipated how strongly people in the session felt about having to tend to their connected objects and how much time and maintenance they required, that they felt like a chore. The way I read his essay it almost feels like at times people resented the connected objects that they had in their homes.

Part of me suspects that he’s dealing with an incredibly smart audience who also know that things shouldn’t have to be that way: he is in a way having a discussion with the people capable of building – and indeed, actually building – such objects, who have a technical, architectural and design understanding of both how these objects function and how they should function and can identify the gap. Being aware of a gap between expected/desired behaviour and actual behaviour as well as being powerless to do anything about it feels like a recipe for resentment.

Quite whether people who *don’t know* how the objects might or should act in an optimal way would react in the same way I’m not entirely sure about. It’s not like regular, non-technical people get frustrated at things. But it might just be a difference of degree.

There’s an insightful bringing up of the context in which the devices are actually going to be used. They’re not in the minimalist yet gorgeous house that Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough inhabit in Oblivion, for example. Technologists and designers would do better to imagine what smart objects would exist in the world of Friends circa 1998 (The One Where Joey Got A Smart Toaster, The One Where Monica Had To Do All The Firmware Updates, The One Where Phoebe Thought Her Thermostat Was Haunted[2]), or sitcoms like Married With Children that don’t reflect a perfect middle-class utopia. This, at least, is one of the reasons why corporate vision videos rarely connect.

It feels like a function of late-stage capitalism that we’re going to end up, as Coates points out, with a whole bunch of silo’d objects. The hope for our future objects interacting and communicating with each other in a way that truly unlocks how powerful and expressive they might be seems not so much as distant as practically unobtainable given the sheer amount of capital it’s going to take to implement an open, connected web of objects in the physical world, rather than the purely bits-based world.

[1] Interacting with a World of Connected Objects by Tom Coates / Product Club

[2] @FriendsnObjects, “The TV show Friends, but with Smart, Connected Objects”

Okay! You people are seriously underperforming, audience-with-whom-I-have-a-relationship.

Heres what you should do. You should hit “reply” and you should type something like “Hi Dan, I am {insert name}” and introduce yourself and maybe say some things. Basically, it gets a lot easier once you hit reply and you’ve typed some words.

Have a good weekend, and see you on Monday,

Dan