Episode Seventy: The Book and The Library; More Responsive OS

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m say in the back of an Uber, heading out to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus again. Turns out you can get some writing done in the back seat of a car if you’ve got a laptop and LTE tethering. Who knew?

1.0 The Book and The Library

I had lunch with Robin Sloan[1] the other day, he of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store[2] and one of my favourite go-to comfort short reads, Annabel Scheme[3]. We caught up on what we’d both been doing, and Robin successfully managed to infect me with his enthusiasm for libraries. Now: I’m a good middle-class library-supporting person. When we lived in London, we made pretty good use of our local library system in Wandsworth, not least of which because while we were there the London council-wide inter-library loan system was working well and we could look something up, click a button and then in a couple days, walk over to the library and have *any book we wanted*. So, er, a bit like Amazon, only with a little bit more walking and a lot less having to deal with crap last-mile physical fulfillment.

I suspect (warning: reckon) that for a bunch of middle class people, libraries are a bit like museums. Fond memories from childhood, a somewhat distant relationship during the middle, and then a kind of outrage at the nostalgia/experience gap when they bring their kids there and realise that a couple decades of non-engagement have kind of contributed to the withering away of a community resource.

So we had a chat about libraries: about how they’re one of the few places that genuinely congregate people of diverse backgrounds together in physical space, in relatively close proximity. Sure, you’ve got the stereotype of people shushing at them, but there’s something, I don’t know, *nice* about: here is a place for anyone, all of us, to congregate, for knowledge. It’s also a good reminder that there’s a large number of people, both in the UK and the US, so developed countries, who rely on libraries for internet access (those who a) don’t *want* internet access – and by this time, I think we can assume that they’ve heard of the internet, and b) those who can’t afford it).

So there’s a thing here: value in physical congregation, encouraged and aided of course by the state. Because libraries do more than just act as repositories of books, they’re a bit like strange attractors that way. And then there’s the new libraries: the ones all glass and light and airy, designed by starchitects, communal spaces, coffee shops, play areas for children that are better than privatised ones.

But the thing Robin turned me on to was that there was a certain simplicity, he said, in the simple book. That if you had an idea, and you wanted as many people as possible around the world to have access to it, it was hard to beat publishing a book. Because once you’d published a book, it was easy, relatively speaking, for a library to acquire it. We’re talking about something qualitatively different from internet access here: and I think that’s the thing that Robin made me realise. Sure, anyone can *publish* something on the internet. But, to get a book from a library, or even to go to a library and read a book, compared to “access the internet” – it’s more that, when you start examining the internet infrastructure closely, there’s still a bunch of junk in the way that impedes access.

The thing about the book/library infrastructure is that, in my geeky head, books are their own runtime environment. The bound paper is the interface method. They are self-executing. They have direct-manipulation user interfaces that have been standardised now and are pretty intuitive. Sure, you need to know how to read, but hey, I’m coming to that bit.

Robin said that libraries are OK in terms of DVDs and music and stuff like that. But I didn’t think so: because yes, DVD players and CD players might be commodities now, but compared to a book – which is *self-executing* and *self-contained*. You can’t just go to a library and get out a DVD and experience the content on it without also owning or having access to an additional access/interface layer. You can do that with a book. If, of course, you can read.

So, say you were going to try to do something about that. Sure, you could give everyone tablets. But, that would require giving everyone tablets. What’s the digital media equivalent of a book? An Android or iPad tablet doesn’t count, I don’t think. Still too complicated. Multiple use. Does different things. You can’t, I don’t think, “just pick it up” and use it in the way you can use a book.

But I bet you could design one. I bet you could design a single-use, cheap tablet based off of commoditised hardware – because we already have hundred dollar Android tablets. They’re doing gangbusters in India and other emerging markets. Sure, you could wait for flexible low-power OLED screens and all that stuff, or you could wait for e-ink to get dramatically better. But we have the hardware *now*. Forget OLPC.

So: what do you make? A single-use, single-media tablet that’s the run-time for the media on it. You want to check out the movie Sneakers from the library? Take a tablet that gets locked to Sneakers. It has play and pause on it. That’s it. You can watch Sneakers now. You want to listen to Beyonce’s latest? Take a tablet that gets locked to that album. That’s it.

Ah, but can we be smarter about the runtime? Sure. The runtime is the web. It’s HTML+Javascript and, well, whatever an open-source browser can interpret and execute. But the point is, from a library and ease-of-access point of view to make the content and the execution/presentation/run-time one and the same, because *that’s what makes books great*. And I’m not saying books are the *best* and unbeatable: because surely, they are. It’s just that there’s something staring us in the face about how they work that’s so simple, because they *just work*.

And sure, if you want to encourage and incentivise physical gathering, make people come to the library to go get the tablet with the media on it. That’s your prerogative as government: you say – hey, it turns out that there are second-order effects inherent in getting people who would not otherwise be in the same place, to be in the same place.

Oh, right. And then you cut a deal with Google, who’s trying to work out where to build fiber networks, and you say: hey, as a condition of getting the franchise to build out your fiber network, we’d like free, low-bandwidth access for library tablet devices over Wi-fi. Sorted.

What a wonderful utopian future! It’s the best kind and the most depressing kind, because it’s the one that’s eminently *technologically* possible, just not politically so.

[1] http://www.robinsloan.com
[2] Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore at:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/1mYwyYw
iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/mr.-penumbras-24-hour-bookstore/id513340579?mt=11&uo=4&at=11ly9m (hey, iTunes, your affiliate program sucks because it doesn’t also do short links)
Powell’s: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/mr.-penumbras-24-hour-bookstore/id513340579?mt=11&uo=4&at=11ly9m
Abe Books: http://www.abebooks.com/9780374214913/Mr-Penumbras-24-Hour-Bookstore-Novel-0374214913/plp
[3] http://www.robinsloan.com/annabel-scheme/

2.0 More Responsive OS

Bud Caddell was kind enough to respond[1] to my thoughts[2] on Undercurrent’s (admittedly work-in-progress) Responsive OS manifesto. And I’m all too happy to debate the Responsive OS model on its substance, and not the rhetoric around it. What I will say, though, is that if it wasn’t clear, I was responding as much to the *framing* of Responsive OS as I was the substance. So there’s two things going on: the substance and the way the substance was communicated.

So Bud’s right to say in his opening para, on my disclosure about management and strategy consultancy. My point, I guess, is that for a certain audience, there’s a skepticism bar and obviously a number of ways to choose as to how to negotiate that bar.

Here’s Bud’s response to my (admittedly pointed) “digital ninja” provocation:

“Oh, digital ninjas. Those were simpler times and easier whipping boys for agency creatives, eh? Anyway. Couple things here. First, we’re quick to tell clients that Responsive OS, as stated in that single blog post, is the goal zone not the playbook on how to get there. The landscape within every company is novel and the challenges are inherently contextual so we use a set of Responsive OS tools which are designed to allow for that flexibility. Second, and more importantly, let’s be clear – things have absolutely changed. When we talk about Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Zappos, Tesla, Airbnb, etc. we’re talking about hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars of market value that were created overnight by ignoring the traditional ways of doing things. Full stop, things have changed. When Airbnb can come boast as much capacity as a Hilton Hotels, worldwide, within less than a decade (capacity which took Hilton almost 100 years to build), something has changed about the way businesses can operate and compete. Of course we’re examining this phenomenon closely and trying to suss out what makes it tick. If you aren’t, then God help you.”

So, Bud doesn’t know me, and I’m writing in a personal capacity in this newsletter, in some respect, to a bunch of people-who-kind-of-know-me. So let me say that, at least in terms of the digital ninja slur, my point of view isn’t that of the “agency creative” – even though, these days, I suppose from the outside I look like one – but someone who came into the ad industry only four years ago from the digital side. If you wanted to be uncharitable about *me*, you could easily have called me a digital ninja back when I joined Wieden+Kennedy. Thankfully, the agency I work for is the kind of place that would sooner show you the door and call you names than admit someone who wanted to be called, or to be seen as, a digital ninja.

So I get this: I get that Responsive OS is an end-point and not a playbook. But I’m not entirely sure that’s clear from the blog post. And I hope this is a useful outside perspective, and I recognise that, you know, it’s *my* outside perspective, but I see a manifesto that is kind of selling a solution. It may well be a framework for a solution, and it’s always difficult communicating that, but I do believe there’s a difference. So it’s my opinion that the post, and the language around *applying a Responsive OS* to different levels or layers within an organisation *does* make it feel a bit three-ring binderish, when that may not be Undercurrent’s intent.

I think where I do have a point of difference is this, though, and it’s where I’d caution Bud and his colleagues to be careful with rhetoric. Bud says:

“When we talk about Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Zappos, Tesla, Airbnb, etc. we’re talking about hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars of market value that were created overnight by ignoring the traditional ways of doing things.”

Sure, I get the point for emphasis, But Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Zappos, Tesla, Airbnb – they didn’t create billions of dollars of market value overnight. Uber’s 5 years old. Amazon is 20(!) years old. Zappos is 15 years old. Tesla Motors is 11 years old. Airbnb is 6 years old. Sure, you can say that Airbnb has built carrying capacity rivalling that of Hilton in a tenth of the amount of time (10 years to Hilton’s 100), but for me, you can’t legitimately call 10 years overnight. 10 years, in a corporate America focussed on hitting Street estimates every quarter, is *forever*. The overnight, to me, is a bit of a trigger sign to me, the one that hints at the implied threat. “Things are changing faster than you think!”, the prophets proclaim. But, and I think Bud would agree with me here – those changes can be anticipated and planned for – responsively, so they don’t *feel* like they’re happening overnight.

Bud counter’s my point on the playing field having *changed* but not technically having been *leveled* by saying:

“Dan makes this point to say that technology doesn’t level the playing field, it simply has changed the playing field. That’s fair, we were leaning into idiom there. Regulation, by design, is written to address what already exists, not what is emerging. So regulation will always be a challenge for new firms, regardless of industry or driver. I don’t think that’s the strongest argument against widespread disruption, though. Plenty of money and regulation were aimed at keeping the music industry stable and predictable, yet that didn’t stop a former game designer and marketing director from building Spotify and furthering that industry’s evolution.”

And yes, I’d agree that Spotify has disrupted the music industry, and we can agree that an application of Moore’s law through computing power *and* communications has helped that come about. But at the same time, has Spotify stalled? Was iTunes more of a disruption? Sure, the power of the network meant that you could rely on digital distribution rather than physical distribution to do an end-run around the existing model for *consumption of music*, but for me, the playing field is not necessarily leveled, more reconfigured, when Spotify still needs to raise about half a billion dollars in funding for both infrastructure build-out and, I’m guessing, licensing.

On planning, Bud asks:

“Have you ever spent time in a Fortune 500 company? Planning truly is the work. Well, planning, preparing for the planning, and preparing to present the planning. Companies make broad assumptions about what the competitive space will be over the next 12-24 months and then take action largely without addressing any real life challenges to those assumptions. We think there’s a better way.”

And I suppose there’s a difference of degree, here. Sure, I’ve sat in client meetings wondering why all this deck-making is happening instead of actually *doing things*. But even those companies that *do things* do planning. So I guess we can make a distinction between what productive planning looks like (ie the agile style of identifying what direction you need to be moving in, doing something in that direction, seeing what happens, and then working out what to do next to keep moving in that direction) and what unproductive Powerpoint wanking-around planning looks like.

On my point criticising “no management” and holocracy-style implied management, Bud points to proof that Valve aren’t prone to mismanagement in the way other companies are through a 2011 story that Valve is more profitable, per head, than Google or Apple. Which, I suppose, is one metric to measure by (and certainly a fair one for you to judge the success of your company, and if you’re a public company, you might not actually have much of a choice). And yes, I think we can all point to Valve as having taken what was initially an internal software distribution and patching system and turned it into a digital commerce and videogame distribution juggernaut as a pretty good success of having outmaneuvered the competition. And yet: there’s valid criticism, I feel, on what else Valve *could have* or *could be* doing, especially in terms of their strategy with their Steamboxes.

I had a part of my thoughts on Responsive OS questioning whether Airbnb had turned the world into a platform for millions yet. On that, Bud says:

“Here are the facts. As of October 2013, Airbnb has served over 9 million guests through a platform supported by only 600 or so employees (compared to Hilton’s 300,000 employees). Uber completes something like 800,000 rides per week alone through a platform supported by about 550 employees. If those numbers don’t astonish you, check your pulse.”

Now, this is a bit of a side-argument that I’m going to take here, and it has nothing to do with Responsive OS and it has everything to do with the Californian Ideology. At this point, what I’m reacting to, is that Airbnb and Uber have figured out how to externalise a lot of costs. Notice what Bud says: 9 million guests, only 600 employees. 800,000 rides, only 550 employees. I recognise that Undercurrent are selling a management/organisational framework to corporations here. And yes, Airbnb and Uber have done something very smart and are introducing a new way of looking at the world for us, and there’s going to have to be (rightfully) a recalibration in terms of regulation. But all I’m doing is simply questioning this: I’m not sure I want to live in a world where increasingly more and more people take on an Uber or Airbnb side job simply to stay where they are. So let me say this again: this isn’t a criticism of the Responsive OS. It’s more a: hey, have you noticed what everyone’s been saying about Piketty? That, in some ways, what makes Airbnb and Uber popular for the “non-employees” who actually provide all the services for which the employees provide the infrastructure, is that they are ways to make up losses in the labour market.

I ended my post with what Bud thought was a hypocritical point about what in essence is the simplicity of the agile manifesto. The whole ” Find out where you are, take a small step toward your goal, adjust your understanding based on what you learned, repeat.” And yes, the devil is obviously in the implementation. But, I think maybe what I’m reacting to is that ideally, the best way to persuade of the Responsive OS, or this type of organizational change, and I’m paraphrasing the work of my friends over at the UK’s GDS, is by showing it.

And yes, Bud: I’d love to grab that coffee.

[1] http://responsive.org/2014/04/on-criticism/
[2] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-sixty-three-disbanded-the-responsive-os/

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Best,

Dan