Episode Seventy Nine: The Internet of Safety; Invisible Technology; Like A Dog Whistle; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

The sky was tuned to the colour of a violent heatmap, or, DarkSky was telling me that there was some pretty hardcore precipitation coming down. I’m still at the farm in Missouri. It’s still not quite quiet. We saw two turkeys in a field today. Calvin has taken to climbing onto what honestly looks like a 1980s era plasticised death trap on wheels and whizzing around, so we’ve had to MacGyver a harness to stop him from faceplanting, which he’s already done once.

I am very, very tired. But I did manage to get on the phone with Centurylink to try and talk some sense into a technical support agent and persuade them that our DSL link was dropping every so often (and tried my best to be patient as I was asked to power cycle the modem and say when the “internet” light was green and then do a speedtest.net diagnostic) and swap out the DSL modem for a new one. *And* I took the father-in-law down to a Verizon store and patiently waited while he was upgraded from a Samsung flip-phone to colour-tastic iPhone 5C and inducted into the Apple ecosystem.

1.0 The Internet of Safety

Ben Evans had a good post the other day[1] bringing more attention to his “Unfair but relevant”[2] post, where he justified the usage of comparing unlike-with-unlike. For example, he’d compare iOS device shipments against Windows PC shipments and have to explain that, whilst they were *unfair* in terms of iOS devices being a completely different market segment than Windows PCs (and the products being on a different replacement cycle and go-to-market strategy), they were *relevant* because of the time and attention that they were cannibalising in terms of their audience.

Evans makes the throwaway point that “customers don’t care if a company’s advantage is unfair”, and I want to unpack that a little. A good example is in terms of the first example (not shown in a chart) where Evans compared would compare customers per employee at fixed versus mobile networks. From the fixed network point of view, that would be unfair, but like Evans says, and more bluntly: the customer doesn’t give a shit. The customer gives a shit about *the job to be done*.

I suppose this is the *really obvious by now* point about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Moore’s Law. By dint of manufacturing process, the first computers were necessarily large, slow and expensive: and because they were *expensive*, they had to justify their price and weren’t trivial. So they started actualising at the very *top* of Maslow’s pyramid. But here we are, thirty to forty years of Moore’s Law later, and the inexorable progress of silicon in computing and communications has meant that per-FLOP cost has dropped so much, and the corresponding energy bill has dropped so much, that computing and communication has now penetrated down to near the bottom of the pyramid.

At the root of it, perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Apple ended up in the ascendant, not Microsoft. Microsoft, always attacking things from the productivity point of view, was always going to be placed at the top of Maslow’s pyramid in terms of satisfying user need (and there’s that crusade again: the empathy with a user necessary to determine, discern and *act upon* genuine user need as opposed to imposed user need). Microsoft’s vast revenues were in the office and b2b side of things: the oft-quoted saying about Microsoft was that they never really sold to end users – they sold to OEMs like Dell, HP, Compaq, IBM and, back in the day, Gateway. Users – consumers – didn’t really get a choice.

Apple, on the other hand, would continue banging the drum about the computer being a bicycle for the mind (and one day, I swear to god, I’m going to get *really* sick of that quote) and would start to push downwards. Sure, the creativity in Apple’s origins in terms of the Mac and Apple ][ would still be in the top two parts of Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualisation and self-esteem, but with the iPod and the Digital Hub, both of which were pooh-poohed by Microsoft as being distractions, you could see Apple actually moving further down the pyramid to attacking things like friendship and family in the love/belonging tier.

So, this is the thing for me: users *don’t care* what your corporate strategy is, or how much you’ve invested, or whether many decades ago you needed a local government monopoly in order to guarantee that you’d make your money back on laying your municipal cable network. What they *wanted* was satisfaction of those needs, and as much as brands might be important, satisfaction of those needs comes a long way in terms of trumping absolutely everything else. People want connectivity and communication, not Verizon or Comcast, which is why they’re entirely happy to jump ship when Google comes to town and offers fiber.

If I were being smart about this, I’d say that we’re entering a new phase of the internet, computing and communication.

The 80s and 90s brought with them the information worker (to an extent), and satisfied the top-most portion of Maslow’s pyramid: self-actualisation. Photoshop, Office, Word Processing – all of that stuff – they all fulfilled the last-required needs-to-be-filled, those of creativity, morality and problem solving.

The 90s and 00s brought with them increased connectivity and communication, and with them, the next two tiers of the pyramid: esteem and belonging. Any of these sound familiar? Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others: these were all elements that were made *vastly* more accessible thanks to the internet and personal publishing. With the internet and peer-to-peer communication, individual could speak unto individual, find each other anywhere out on the ‘net, and no-one knew you were a dog. Careers were made and stars were born, and they continue to do so: witness the constant rise of new YouTube stars.

Social networks and mobile started to satisfy the next tier of love and belonging. As Moore’s law pushed us further down the stack and more intimately into our lives so that devices were not tethered to desks and instead nestled in our pockets, they would offer opportunities for friendship, family and sexual intimacy.

So now, where are we? I think we’re at the Internet of Safety phase.

If you believe that Moore’s law is pushing us down the pyramid in terms of fulfillment of need due to increased and ease of accessibility to networked computing devices, then the next tier is Safety. With safety, we’re going to see the opportunity to fulfill needs like security of body, security of employment, resources, morality, health and property. And *each and every single one of those* maps against the new wave of startups that we’re seeing that are accruing value. Whether you like them or not, zero-hour contracts and API-mediated employment are making dents in everyday life. A proliferation of sensing devices – whether mobile or remote – are changing the way we perform resource management, at the large end like GIS and at the narrow end, like Uber and Airbnb. Social feedback mechanisms like Twitter are providing violent check mechanisms against morality in big-picture spaces for nation states, like we’ve seen in the Middle East (while near-term effects don’t look too great, long-term, increased communication is looking like it’s critical to a more accurately represented demos), and for small-picture micro-campaigns like Nintendo’s conservative family values and what happened to Brendan Eich. Health is a no-brainer as devices get smarter and we’re all just waiting for the one true coming of the integrated wearable and a usable electronic health record, plus joined-up services. And property, along with resources, are being disrupted as, arguably, the need to have *access* to property as opposed to the ownership of property appears to be an even easier and more accessible way of satisfying user need.

This, I think, is the next age of the internet: not some sort of web 3.0, not an internet of things, but a change in focus as to what kinds of user needs we’re able to satisfy through technology. I like this, because it focuses on what the internet of things will *do*, rather than just say that hey, turns out when you can give stuff IP addresses, stuff gets IP addresses.

[1] http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/5/5/unfair-but-relevant
[2] http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/4/19/unfairness-or-getting-something-for-nothing

2.0 Invisible Technology

Google X’s Astro Teller was at Disrupt New York last week delivering what TechCrunch described as an “Anti-Technology Mission Statement,”[1] which, for an organisation founded on technological innovation, seems like a bit of a case of sub-editor (or, indeed blogger) either not understanding what they’re writing about, or the language that they’re writing in. But anyway.

Now there are some verbatim quotes in TechCrunch’s writeup that are, shall we say, a little bit troubling/amusing, but in this case I’m going to chalk them up to TechCrunch being TechCrunch and assume that Teller doesn’t actually mean what the author of the piece, Romain Dillet, implies.

Teller’s general gist is in terms of how technology should be more like the ABS system in current cars. Cars these days are partly a drive-by-wire system: you don’t actually have a direct, mechanical connection in terms of your cause and its effect, and instead you have computer-mediated interaction. You hit the brake pedal and your implied brake instruction is translated, by the ABS computer, into a series of brake instructions that are designed to carry out your intent. As Dillet puts it, “it’s just an interface. You are actually making a request to a robot.” Teller’s implying that this is good: you don’t have to worry about *how* ABS works, you just know (or implicitly) that it will Do What You Mean.

Bluntly: Teller’s cheating. In ABS, you have a piece of interface – the foot pedal – that has a single intent: to brake. You can either do it fast or slow, light or hard, but it’s pretty much about braking. There’s no real ambiguity there, or at least, the ambiguity is only in terms of one axis. ABS’s job is to take a specific outcome – wheels locking and losing control of the vehicle – and to mitigate it. That’s a *really* narrow problem domain. If you’re extrapolating outside of that and saying “Well, all technology should be as easy to use as that,” then I’ve got a bunch of unicorns on a bridge that you’re very welcome to buy. Teller is, in fact, just saying “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we solved all the EasyHard problems.”[2, 3]

I mean, the good news is that Teller admits to it, and Google X kind of has a remit for moonshot technology. He says:

“[ABS] is a wonderful technology moment. We don’t have to mess with it. We just say here’s what we want,” he said. “When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.’”

I had a previous version of this that was noodling around in my head where I went and thought about what Teller might mean by “invisibility” – for example, did he mean ubiquity or mundanity, robustness or reliability. But now that I’ve let it sit for a few days, the invisibility is instead in the sort of strong AI, definitely-EasyHard problem space: always do what I mean, without me having to explain it.

The flip side of this, of course, is that all of this “do what I mean” functionality in effect hides a great deal of complexity and in a sense may even disempower us. The Techcrunch writeup talks of technology becoming “more efficient” so that it can fade into the background, but this isn’t efficiency: it’s second-guessing or mindreading or plain smarts.

At times, I feel as frustrated at Teller’s speech (or, more accurately, Techcrunch’s retelling of it) because it could be misinterpreted into laughably bullshit “the best interface is no interface” manifesto from two years ago that derailed everyone even before we had the skeuomorphic-dissing bandwagon of iOS 7 and was instead someone who had unfortunately failed to realise that “interfaces” aren’t just things on screens.

I have to admit that I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, other than I wish I could just blackhole Techcrunch and not read it, or that the underlying mission of Google X is *far* more interesting than the opportunistic writeup that it garnered. I mean, of course Google X’s mission should be way more interesting: they want (at least, from the outside) to disappear phones and make cars self-driving and so on. And if there’s anyone out there who can solve EasyHard problems, it may as well be Google right now. I just wish that someone who said they wished technology got out of the way realised that a better way of getting that message across might be to not wear a face computer at the same time.

[1] http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/06/googlex-head-of-moonshots-astro-teller-technology-should-make-you-feel-more-human-not-less-human/
[2] http://jenson.org/easyhard/
[3] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-nineteen-not-trying-is-a-signal-peak-game-easyhard-snapchat/

3.0 Like A Dog Whistle

Whilst it only appeared on The Verge today[1], news broke in Variety a few days ago that CBS had ordered its latest CSI spinoff, CSI: Cyber[2]. We’ve now graduated from YouTube comedy compilations of double-keyboard hacking prevention and making a GUI in Visual Basic to trace the IP to a full-on spinoff show capable of sustaining its own cast from week to week. If there were any doubt that residual cultural knowledge of the ‘net and its effects has permeated enough of our daily lives, it’s that Jerry Bruckheimer is able to get this series sold in a post-Snowden world. CSI: Cyber is likely to be a dog whistle to the someone is wrong on the internet[3] crowd, if only because it’s going to be like crack for not-quite-right portrayals of technology.

What will be interesting about CSI: Cyber is that it’ll be a sort of mirror into what the 40+ American heartland thinks is going on with the internet. Never one for technical accuracy (albeit having done wonders for getting people interested in forensics, of a sort), the thing about CSI is that the stories have to feel *just real enough* to their audience. If you want some quick-and-dirty research into the fears that middle America might have (or, rather, the fears that Hollywood thinks middle America might have), and the technology that Middle America might relate to, then CSI: Cyber is probably going to be worth watching. Also, if anything, the show should be more good examples of Movie OS[4] in terms of visual storytelling in user interface.

And at the very least, CSI: Cyber will be funny.

[1] http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/12/5711260/csi-cyber-crime-spin-off-coming-2014-dark-net-crime-fighting
[2] http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cbs-orders-csi-cyber-spinoff-to-series-1201176896/
[3] http://xkcd.com/386/
[4] http://danhon.com/2010/04/16/the-future-is-movie-os/ (wow, I wrote that in 2010)

4.0 Odds

– It’s not quantum cryptography (or, at least, it’s not the kind that you’d instinctively reach for – ie the kind over a point-to-point quantum link), but apparently consumer phone hardware (well, a Nokia N8, so who knows if Microsoft are still making them) now gives us access to significantly better random number generators, which *are* good for better cryptography. See the Arxiv writeup on Medium: https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/602f88552b64

– “Organisations aren’t designed to change” – http://blog.gardeviance.org/2014/05/organisational-add-ons.html, of which, designing a template that’s encouraging of certain kinds of change – possibly like Undercurrent’s Responsive OS – sounds like a reasonable response.

– With The Science of Us (http://scienceofus.com), the New York Magazine’s new behavioural science journalism explainer experiment, it feels like there are enough explainers out there for someone to do a Huffington Post of educational textbook content: ie aggregate all the good, free stuff published around the web, organise it into a curriculum and, er, something something pants profit. Seriously, I don’t think this is a dumb idea.


As ever, please send notes. I like them.

Best,

Dan