Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Weekday Newsletter

Episode One Hundred and Fifty Three: Not Doing A Nick Bilton; Counterexamples; echofuckingpraxia

0.0 Station Ident

Back from hiatus. I had wanted to simply send a note yesterday saying “Dan Hon is on holiday,” but instead I can blame it on having a Human Accident, yet another entry in the ongoing series of “Stupid Things Baseline Humans Do To Injure Themselves”.

Friday night, and I managed (don’t laugh) to topple myself, in slow-motion and glacier-like, over the bannister on our porch as I leant over to drop the compost into the compost bin, breaking a tooth off and concussing myself. One trip to the ER and a trip to an emergency dentist, the threat of a root canal (something that apparently is nowadays significantly less scary than it actually is) and instead a temporary crown later (my teeth!) and I’m back on a plane on my way to DC to speak at the HOW Interactive Design Conference.

So: no newsletter on Friday night due to being stuck in an ER, no newsletter on Monday due to slow recuperating and it was also Labor Day in the US. Instead: newsletter today! High fives all around.

1.0 Not Doing A Nick Bilton

I’m not going to “do a Nick Bilton” and victim blame – but what I do think is worth taking is what I hope comes across as a nuanced position.

Given that a) we find it hard to gauge risk in the first place and b) that we find it even harder to gauge risk when we don’t have the information (and we acknowledge that it’s hard to find time to properly educate ourselves int he first place) and c) the vast majority of the “information” and understanding in the celeb-photo-hacking is in “how invisible infrastructure works”, hence all the Explainers in today’s media about WHAT IS THE ICLOUD (calling to mind instantly Nightvale-esque Dog Park/Glow Cloud feelings): what did we expect?

We could say that celebrities are a higher-profile target so the risk profile for them is different than your ordinary joe. On the other hand, the rise of doxxing as a vigilante technique for those wronged on the internet seems to open up the opportunity for anyone to be treated in the same was as a celebrity – as a target. So you could even look at it this way: means, motive and opportunity to try to break down where, and what, type of failings were involved in this latest hack.

Motive is perhaps the easiest one to get out of the way if we’re just looking at technology and its effects on society. The targets were female celebrities, doing nothing other than living in a toxic, misogynistic environment that treated them as objects to be pawed and masturbated over – the latter brought starkly into relief in a yeah-we’re-winking-and-it’s-self-referential-so-it’s-ok  through the usage of the #thefappening hashtag.

But means and opportunity are where it falls down, for me. For those saying “don’t take nude photos of yourself, and don’t store them online”, I feel that, aside from victim-blaming, we’re just opening up a can of worms in terms of risk assessment and how we expect people to live these days.

In other words, and as I said to a friend: we can point at one of the new wonders of the world, the most democractic communications networks that we’ve ever built, that is relied upon for secure financial transactions and that we trust implicitly in some regards, and we say that you shouldn’t use that self same network for private photographs? Really? (The fair point here is that certain aspects of information are one-shot, binary all or nothing. Financial transactions are reversible and money can be returned, not so something that can’t be unseen – Suw Charman-Anderson has written particularly well on this point regarding the one-shot nature of irreplacable biometrics[1])

So it all comes down to trust: one of the people I was talking to last night remarked (somewhat sarcastically, I think) that apparently the little green lock icon in a browser bar apparently means nothing these days, and they’re not half wrong.

Password security doesn’t even come into it in this situation, at least not if the current best-guess of a vulnerability in iCloud in its lack of rate-limiting login attempts is what happened. A better password wouldn’t have helped. iCloud’s login design at that particular entry point was defective. There’s no other way to say it. It wasn’t a bug – it was designed badly, like a bridge that was going to fail – a structural failing.

At what point as technologists are we able to allow our users to expect basic security? If it had been a zero-day, fine, if it had been heartbleed, then Apple’s fault would be different. But in my position as self-appointed armchair internet pundit in the sky (I’m nothing if not aware of my mouthing off of nothing more than my own opinion), this *was* Apple’s fault.

You can point to things like warranties and disclaimers and the fact that if you actually read the terms and conditions to all of these services there’s not a lot you can do about it. But, as Sarah Jeong pointed out last night, “WE BUILT A SHITTY INTERNET AND YOUR ONLY CONSTRUCTIVE SUGGESTION IS SEXY PEOPLE SHOULDN’T USE IT.”[2]

So, here’s a suggestion: design practices for good security to build trust with users. If users have a responsibility to be informed then at the least we have the responsibility to build systems that they can trust. And I’m not saying that we have the responsibility to build one-hundred-percent secure systems because such things are impossible to build. But what we can do is make sure that we don’t make basic mistakes and show that privacy and security are important to us in the products and services that we build.

Things like: two factor auth should be available as an option. Logons at all entry points should be rate-limited. No emailing passwords in the clear. SSL, all the time.

What’s potentially frustrating is that these are not brand new security or privacy principles that have suddenly been derived in the last year or so. These aren’t new ideas. They should be basics.

For example, we should aim for consistency. When a user knows that their iPhone will lock if the enter the wrong password five times in a row, it is reasonable that their assumption would be that anything else tied to that account – for example, their iCloud login on a web portal – would also lock upon five logon failures in a row. Whyever not? Apple, after all, pride themselves on their hardware and software integration.

[1] Oh, What Big Eyes You Have! – Suw Charman-Anderson
[2] https://twitter.com/sarahjeong/status/506646968811024384

2.0 Counterexamples

Sometimes I get a bit narrow-minded, so I idly asked on Twitter how libertarians (a vague term if there was one, and not being helpfully specific) got common infrastructure projects done, to which Danny O’Brien was kind enough to send me an email that was really, really long and really, really helpful. Now I know what it’s like reading one of these, I think. In any event, at least one of the things that he did was to point out a bunch of examples where you don’t need a coercive power like a government to get things done and produce things for the common good.

O’Brien reminded me about bits of pre-World War 2 infrastructure that have since become codified. Trains, canals, roads (but not motorways) and electricity standards, never mind more recent innovations like TCP/IP, keyboard layouts, the Twenty-Foot-Equivalent Unit of shipping containers, and Blu-Ray (whether or not you think they’re *good* standards) have all come about through self-interested groups acting together and figuring a way to hash things out.

So yes: all of that’s good, but I think what I lack in the ability to express myself in 140 characters is something like this: I’m specifically thinking about the example of compulsory purchase orders in the UK, or eminent domain in the United States – what happens when someone decides that the best place to put a road, on balance, for everyone, is right through where your house is? And this is where O’Brien helped to clarify the crux of my thinking: is it better to force everyone to behave well, or is it better to never use the power to force people do something?

3.0 echopraxiafuckingexhopraxia

There are probably spoilers for Peter Watts’ novels Blindsight and Echopraxia in this section.

I finished Peter Watts’ latest, Echopraxia[1], shortly after it came out, doing that kind of binge-reading that author-devotees get thanks to the frustrating publisher release cycle (as in that particularly first-world problem of just not having enough *patience* to wait until something comes out). Pretty much straight after finishing Echopraxia I went on to re-read Blindsight, because the former helped me figure out the bits I liked about the latter.

Turns out the bit that I liked about Blindsight were the Big Smart/Dumb Object and its inhabitants and the idea that there can be these *things*, in much the same way that we might be thought of as Big Dumb Objects by all the flora that live on and inside us. Are we just a giant spaceship for gut bacteria? Or even for the tiny mites that live in the pores on our faces?

I felt like the consciousness stuff got a bit thin – not necessarily repetitive, but that it wasn’t what I was getting the most enjoyment out of. That was for the idea of Portia, the idea of consciousness as time-sharing, that when you have just a bundle of neurons all you did is slow reality down and do all of your processing up front. Portia may well do all of that planning, but that’s a hell of a lot of planning. I liked being confronted with that kind of alien and unfamiliar, and it was the same kind of deal that you got with the Primes in Peter F. Hamilton’s space opera series.

It’s a hard book – there’s a lot going on and a lot to keep in your head, but it’s not like one of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief series or Stephenson’s Anathem where there’s a bunch of new language you need to figure out just to make sense of what’s happening in the world. But there’s also an element of waiting for the other shoe to drop – by now, we know enough of the world that Watts has painted for us that Bruks’ presence isn’t an accident and you’re kind of sitting pretty trying to figure out why everyone’s so eager to keep a baseline pet on board.

[1] Echopraxia – Amazon.com

That’s all for today. As ever, send me notes, and I really like it when people drop a line even to just introduce themselves.

Best,

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Fifty Two: Car!; The Robots Work For Tim Ferris; Diversity; 2014 (6)

0.0 Station Ident

I started writing this yesterday morning, straight after I’d sent that day’s delayed episode. It’s 3:30pm on Thursday and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with the sheer amount of admin that feels like the programmer equivalent of yak-shaving: dealing with the corporate travel agent for the next two conferences I’m speaking at, buying wedding presents for dear friends and trying to work out where to get them delivered so it’ll cause as little stress as possible (because you know you can’t just order stuff from Amazon as a present because thanks to their wonderful UK last-mile delivery problem of consistently failing to actually deliver.

1.0 Car!

Tuesday was the return leg of a short family vacation – roughly six hours of driving through California and Oregon and time to check out some of the Awesome! New! Stuff! in our new car. Our 2014 Subaru Outback has EyeSight – Subaru’s brand name for collision avoidance, car-tracking and lane-wandering technology. Yesterday was trying out the adaptive cruise control system, which as a Brit is a novel thing because, I don’t know, I don’t feel that cruise control is a thing that we use much of in England because the country really isn’t that big and the roads normally aren’t that straight and go on FOR EVER like they do in America.

But anyway.

There’s part of the multi-function display in the driver – cockpit, I guess? – that’s a shiny OLED type screen, super nice and bright, and which displays stuff like the “Hey! the car ahead of you has started moving!” notifications and the “It looks like you’re changing lane! Did you mean to do that?” iconography.

Perhaps it’s because I anthropomorphise things, but when using the adapative cruise control system, I get to set how far I’d like to be behind the car in front (as far as possible, please, which annoys the fuck out of the majority of American drivers, I’ve found) and the display shows me whether or not the car sees another car in front of it.

A long time ago – back when I still lived in London, I think, I remember going round to BERG’s offices and Matt Jones talking about the whole Be As Smart As A Puppy thing[1]. My car isn’t even as smart as a puppy, really, or it might be if all the different bits of its brain talk to each other.

Here’s what I mean: there’s a bit of my car that’s really good at recognising car-shaped things. Like, really good! And it gets excited about them, because when it sees a car, it beeps, and it shows me a picture of a car. And then when the car goes away, it beeps again, and it takes away the picture of a car. It does this. All. The. Time. It is like a little puppy: it can recognise cars! I am very proud of my car. I would pat its steering wheel as it yet-again recognised another car and say “Good car, good recognising!” My wife rolls her eyes at me.

When I turn on this feature, my car is like a slightly less vocally expressive version of my eighteen month old son, who has a Tractor Recognition Algorithm that is a little bit loosely tuned at the moment (ie. it’s a bit excitable and liable to recognise things as Tractors when they’re not Tractors). My car cannot, however, pat its head and do the ASL for “hat” and then sign “book” and ask for the I Want My Hat Book to be read to it.

OK, thank you anyway.

There was another thing about the car that was a nice little spot of anthropomorphisation. The TPMS light kept coming on every now and the and apart from making my wife and I make TPS report jokes at each other, it turned out to be the Tire Pressure Management System telling us that there might be something up with the pressure of one of the tires. We stopped in at a very nice car shop along the way and had a chat with one of the mechanics there, who described the TPMS as something with a radio and a sensor in each tire (and the spare) and every so often, the car would say: “Hey tires, are you OK?” and each tire would check in and say “hello hello, tire number one, I’m OK”.

I mean, this is essentially right and why geeky people think the Story of Ping is funny: my car is full of things that can recognise things and tiny little submodules of specific functionality. The bit of my car that recognises cars, and when they’ve moved! The bit of my car that talks to tires! The bit of my car that *is* tires, and talks to other bits of my car!

Pretty soon, these things start adding up. Hearing my car go beep every time it recognises a car is like watching a baby learn to smile when it sees the face of another human that it recognises. It feels like the first glimmers.

[1] Be As Smart As A Puppy – BERG

2.0 The Robots Work For Tim Ferris

I’m not sure how this one popped into my head, but whatever: Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek mashed into my head unexpectedly against the The Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs meme. I have to admit: I couldn’t finish Tim’s book because something about his personality just grates with me. But, never finishing a book or not properly researching something hasn’t ever stopped someone from having an opinion or thinking out loud, and I’m definitely doing the latter. So: on with unresearched opinions and general gut-feelings.

One way of thinking about Tim Ferriss is that he’s adept at looking at systems (systems-thinking-klaxon) and figuring out how to rework them or deploy them to his advantage. He’s not interested in having a job, and he’s interested in optimisation. He’s still working – a lot of what I think he does that he inexplicably doesn’t count in his 4 hours of working a week is that type of forward-planning architecting.

So: the robots are working for Tim Ferriss. Sometimes they’re actual robots – perhaps more software bots than physical robots – and sometimes they’re meta-robots, intricate or not-so-intricate systems that he can set up to generate passive, low-maintenance income for him. But he’s certainly not doing “work” or having a “job”, and yet at the same time, those systems that he’s setting up that generate the passive, low-maintinance income are also at risk from disruption. So he has to keep hustling and keep working out what the next system to deploy is. It’s certainly an existence, and a particular one that requires a different set of skills than ones that we (society) traditionally trains people for through the industrial-era education system. But, I’d argue (somewhat hand-wavingly) that it’s people like Ferriss (whether you agree or get on with his personality or not) that are able to see networks and figure out how to extract value from them. That latter phrase is where it gets a bit difficult, because some people can get uncomfortable with the idea of value-extraction rather than value-generation because if what Ferriss is doing *most* of the time (I don’t know – I haven’t read the book, remember?) is finding opportunities to arbitrage then he’s just kind of moving bits around and skimming off the top. Or to put it another way: is Ferriss gaming the system, or making systems work for him?

When I first read Ferriss’ book I remember thinking that he’d replaced “work” with administration and then worked to replace the administration. Part of what irks me about the way we talk about productivity advances is that they typically don’t take into account the user experience. If you’re going to count the massive availability of free net-provided replacements for formerly paid-for products (ie the idea that you can stop going to the movies because you can watch them for free on YouTube, or you don’t need to subscribe to the newspaper anymore because of Google News or you don’t need to pay for cable any more because…), then you also have to account for the productivity *loss* in badly-administered and user-unfriendly systems. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that PCs were great as a productivity advance and simultaneously say that they didn’t also have a productivity drag as anyone who’s had to do parental tech support can attest.

Hm. Productivity Drag. That might be coming tomorrow.

3.0 Diversity

So follow my train of thought: first there was this image[1] that showed up in my Twitter feed, the latest salvo in the misogyny-wars currently wracking “gamer” culture for which I’m not even going to point to anything other than the aforementioned image, suffice to say that there are some people who happen to play games who are, bluntly, offensive children who need to grow up.

Then there was the thought of comparing what’s happening to “gamer” culture to what happened to football (soccer) fans in the 1980s and 90s in the United Kingdom with hooliganism and racism (the latter of which is arguably still a problem, the former of which was dealt with by specific legislation, too) and never mind the whole “gamer” identification being a thing other than what was seen as a fringe/minority interest needing to protect itself, I mean it’s not like (and I’ve been saying this in talks and presentations for literally YEARS now) we talk about “televisioners” or “musicers”.

But anyway.

Then there was taking a look at my own male/female follower ratio[2] and being somewhat dismayed at the results, and then a whole bunch of friends looked at their own with results ranging from 21% female for Timoni West[3], 22% female for Tom Coates[4], 34% female for Alex Fleetwood[5], 41% female for James Moran[6] and 56% female for Naomi Alderman[7].

Now, this is all anecdata.

But, it brings into question Twitter’s methodology for determining gender as it does the makeup of Twitter’s userbase in the first place, and even whether what we say and do on stream-based social media makes our accounts more or less accessible to members of either gender. Either way, I know I’m not happy about the purported statistic, because I’d much rather have a diverse and representative audience rather than something that can feel a bit echo-chambery.

[1] https://twitter.com/ferricide/status/505101049028685824
[2] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/505113755613548544
[3] https://twitter.com/timoni/status/505106504316641280
[4] https://twitter.com/tomcoates/status/505105560253890560
[5] https://twitter.com/ammonite/status/505108755168919552
[6] https://twitter.com/jamesmoran/status/505117478910169088
[7] https://twitter.com/naomiallthenews/status/505110884222377984

4.0 2014 (6)

Gender is determined algorithmically on major social networks using black boxes not open for review. Books are delivered wirelessly to millions of low-power e-paper devices. Data Brokers exist, collecting and amassing personal information and selling it to advertisers and media companies. Realtime Art describes the act of using massively parallel processors to render images in three dimensions dynamically, providing instantaneous feedback to artists. Car tires talk to cars. The US government is calling for a protocol to enable car-to-car communication. Security specialists are now worried about suitcase electromagnetic warfare and advise companies to place critical infrastructure in shielded Faraday cages, to use optical fiber rather than copper wire where possible and to institute a green belt as a building perimeter. Low-earth orbit has been found hospitable to life.

It’s 2014.

Notes are welcome, as always.

Best regards,

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Fifty One: Not That Way; Against Empathy; Just Don’t

0.0 Station Ident

PDX Airport, 6:30am, another day trip down to San Francisco, this one for another Undisclosed Reason that I might or might not be able to talk about later. I didn’t manage to get this episode out last night, so I’m hoping to be able to write a quick one this morning, and then another one tonight. Because, practice!

1.0 Not That Way

So we’re not sure if I broke my toe or not. Probably not. Maybe. I’ll get an email from a radiologist today and we’ll see what they think; but for those of you who don’t live in the US, here’s what happens when you think you break your toe and you think you should probably get it looked at.

There’s a healthcare/doctor franchise in Portland called Zoomcare that’s kind of aimed at, for lack of a better term, millennials. Or at least it’s aimed at the kind of people who don’t want to spend ages looking (researching, comparison shopping) for a “primary healthcare provider” (ie: register with a GP) and just want to be able to book a same-day appointment to see someone for something like a possible broken toe, a cold, feeling “unwell”, a burning sensation or something itching. Basically: the kind of stuff that you’d be comfortable seeing *any* GP for, and not looking for chronic, long-term care or management.

I booked an appointment online – I had to wait until after 8pm on Monday night to be able to book an appointment for Tuesday. Turning up at Zoomcare and registering is pretty easy if you have insurance – I just needed to show my insurance card, a photo ID and a valid credit card to make sure I was good for payment (which turned out to be a $15 co-pay in the end). On Tuesday night, I was promptly seen by a physician’s assistant (a PA-C) – not a doctor, but someone who’s certified to perform diagnosis. He quickly figured out that we’d need x-rays, and they don’t have a radiologist on-site after hours, so he set me up with a FastPass – an arrangement that Zoomcare have with a hospital system in Portland – Legacy Good Samaritan – where I could get an x-ray done: I’d take myself over to the emergency room, get myself admitted there, get an x-ray done, and then take the films back to Zoomcare for my PA-C to look at them.

This meant driving over to the hospital (or a fifteen minute walk), and then taking about fifteen minutes to get registered with the Legacy Good Samaritan system: another credit card, insurance card and photo ID check, social security number, emergency contact, confirmation of address, phone number, three signatures and three initials. The signature process is pretty interesting: you don’t see machines like this in the UK that often, but they’re basically signature blocks: small resistive monochrome LCD displays that are like a signature strip: all they are is a space for you to sign. What happens is the registering attendant tells you that they’re “offering you” the various documentation like their terms and conditions or their privacy policy and that you have the opportunity to read it and then to sign it.

The bit that is just-the-way-the-world-works is the whole information sharing aspect that’s undoubtedly in some part due to regulations in the US like HIPAA[1]. HIPAA gets blamed for everything from being a barrier to innovation and disruption in the US healthcare industry to being the reason why you don’t get to see photos of all the newborn babies at doctors offices anymore[2].

There are no people with giant multi-touch walls flinging digital x-rays around. They get printed out and put in a manilla envelope for me to take back to Zoomcare.

So, this is a long way of saying: for all the visions of technology that we get sold to us, hardly any of them actually deal with better process. And even the word “better” is a bit of a weaselly word because you have to do the hard work to define what “better” even means. Is it better for billing? Is it better for the patient? Is it faster, cheaper, easier to use? Is it more accurate? Does it reduce errors? Does it allow you to get more done in less time? Technology promised us an easy way out – the out-of-the-box solution, even when you have to bring in a whole bunch of system integrators. But it turns out that that might not be the case unless you really, really know a business inside out, and what its needs are.

The real world doesn’t work the way they show us in corporate vision videos. The real world still has people emailing the wrong version of a Word document, of people who don’t know how to use Track Changes, of people who don’t know how to center text and just hit the spacebar a bunch of times, of mis-named files, of mistakes in Excel spreadsheets.

[1] HIPAA – HHS.gov
[2] Baby Pictures at the Doctor’s? Cute, Sure, But Illegal – NYTimes.com

2.0 Against Empathy

I’ve written a lot about empathy, and given a couple of talks (and am planning a few more) about this idea of an empathy gap (I’d originally written that phrase in capitals, but in retrospect, it feels a bit like cheating to capitalise something when it’s not entirely thought through yet. A bit of a hack to give legitimacy to something that may not deserve it yet).

If I think about it, what I’ve been describing in this newsletter and in my talks has been in parts a corporate/organisational lack of empathy in the high-level sense (ie: not considering the position of another), but also related concepts that follow on from that, like lack of trust and respect. And sometimes, empathy might not even be the right term – does AT&T or Verizon or British Gas need empathy for your position, do they literally need to *experience* the world as you do? Or do they just need to *understand* your position and to act sympathetically, and to alleviate the position that you find yourself in, if that’s their stated goal?

This has been niggling away in my head ever since Matt Jones sent me a note that I should check out Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, with the broad overview that perhaps sympathy and reason are better tools than just “empathy” (I haven’t read the book yet, but that’s what Jones has told me).

And then yesterday, Paul Bloom’s article in the Boston Review[1], in which he comes out as writing a book about empathy, coming out against it. Bloom’s position is significantly more nuanced and developed than mine, but I suppose he’s looking at it from a different perspective. There’s an interesting point in Bloom’s article where he talks about the difficulties of empathy – that because it’s something that exists in our minds and is a product of the physiology and neuroscience of our brains, it’s also subject to the various hacks and biases that our brains subject our selves to: “we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background” and at the same time, Bloom points out that empathy “is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.”

Bloom is concerned about being able to override the empathic response in situations that, for example, call for long-term thinking or impose costs on individuals for the benefit of the many, citing climate change and child vaccination.

So I suppose here’s the outline on what I mean by the empathy gap in organisations and corporations: it’s the outward appearance of a failure to understand, consider and then act upon the situation of a user, customer or person. In some cases, the outward appearance of failure is down to not understanding a user, and in other cases, it may well be down to understanding a user’s need and deciding not to act upon them anyway. Examples like AT&T requiring you to opt-out of arbitration via letter rather than Dropbox’s method of allowing you to do so easily online fall in the dark-pattern group, to my mind. So I think I’m using the naive meaning of empathy: the lack of understanding of another’s position.

[1] Against Empathy – Paul Bloom, the Boston Review

3.0 Just Don’t

Accenture Australia’s Public Services division popped up in my Twitter timeline this morning with the following copy:

“How can Customs agencies create #digitalborders for #digitaltrade? Read more. @AccenturePubSvc ow.ly/ABhbc”

The white paper[1] is even more egregious than the tweet itself, titled “Digital Borders: The Key to Survival for Customs Agencies”. Never mind piracy, lost tax revenue from digital goods may well be the impetus to requiring deep packet inspection at the ISP level to make sure that “digital borders” can be enacted so Customs Agencies can survive.

It’s not that Customs Agencies need to survive – the question that Accenture poses in their paper is “How can [customs] agencies handle digital’s disruptive impact on national and fiscal security to deliver public services for the future?”

More on this later tonight, I expect.

[1] Digital Borders: The Key to Survival for Customs Agencies? – Accenture

8:36am, at 30,000 feet again. See you on the other side tonight.

Best,

Dan

Episode One Hundred And Fifty: Here In My Car

0.0 Station Ident

I’m writing this poolside, somewhere in (very) northern California. We’re on a family vacation, and I have to admit that part of me was seriously considering not writing an episode today, or at the very least just sending one that contained the words “Dan Hon is on vacation,” or sending one that just says “Dan Hon returns on Wednesday 27 August”. But no, I’m sat here, Macbook Air in my lap on a lounger, watching a pool cleaner robot do its thing. Robot looks like it’s enjoying its job, though.

The family vacation was off to a wobbly start – partway on our drive down from Portland we were amusingly crashed into by another driver which wasn’t fantastic. You don’t especially *expect* drivers in front of you on a main road to slow down, stop and sit stationary for a few seconds before reversing into you, but sometimes apparently these things just happen. And then just to top things off I’m pretty sure I stubbed my toe.

Anyway: I seem to have picked up a few hundred new readers thanks to this TechCrunch article on newsletters[1], so some housekeeping is probably in order.

Things That Have Caught My Attention is a fairly eclectic mix of anything that’s caught my attention. I write it every weekday, and Episode One Hundred contained a look back, clip-show-style at some of my favorite bits. They’ve included things like writing about the Californian Ideology, a streak on empathy (and its lack in corporate and organizational environments), a little bit about dealing with depression and a bit about the quantified self. In any event, the archive at TinyLetter[2] will always be most up-to-date, followed by an archive at newsletter.danhon.com[3], running off the back of a WordPress instance that relies on me updating it by hand and adding the right metadata tags.

[1] Why Everyone Is Obsessed With E-mail Newsletters Right Now – TechCrunch
[2] Tinyletter newsletter archive (always up-to-date, less metadata)
[3] Blog newsletter archive (more metadata, slightly less up-to-date)

1.0 Here In My Car

The Paul Ford piece on The Future had a few points that are still pinging around in my head. Ford takes concepts that we have right now – subscription services and access instead of ownership and then brings to life a tale of how they might be experienced during a regular day about forty years from now.

For starters, there’s often a debate as to how quickly the driverless car future will come about. Ford’s piece doesn’t really talk about holdouts still manually driving cars, so we’ll ignore that part, and instead look at another parallel: adoption of consumer electronics. I got my first mobile phone in 1998, but I was an early adopter – it was a tie-in with a student bank account that I got from Barclays, and was a super-early GSM cellphone running on the Cellnet, pre-O2 network – the late 90s were super early in the development of mobile phones and you didn’t even have cross-network minutes, or even cross-network SMS compatibility back then. Anyway, I digress – less than twenty years later, you’ve got pretty much ubiquitous coverage and people who don’t have mobile phones are the exception rather than the rule.

This type of change always feels like it happens both faster, and slower, than people anticipate. I imagine that a similar situation might happen with self-driving cars: that we’ll always imagine them to be about forty years away, and then wake up twenty years in the future and find out that they’re mostly – but not entirely – there.

Now, I’m just coming up with this off the top of my head and I don’t really admit to having done any particular research. These aren’t facts or projections or anything – just barely researched intuition, so make of it what you will.

So take a look at the car market in the US – in the 7 months to 2014, about 9 million cars were sold[2], at an average selling price of around $31,000 – so you’ve got a market size of around $279bn before discounts are taken into account. For comparison, Comcast’s annual revenue is around $65bn, and Verizon’s revenue is around $120bn.

The idea of subscription services is interesting, because one of the first things that a Disruptor will tell you is to sell the service, not to sell the product. Car manufacturers aren’t necessarily selling cars, they’re selling freedom of movement or transportation. Changing the automotive/car business into a personal transport business that has to grapple with concepts like Average Revenue Per User sounds like it’s going to take some time for Detroit, and the rest of the industry, to deal with (modulo companies like Daimler, who have their Car2go pay-per-minute experiment – in fact, I’d argue that Car2go feels as much an experiment as Apple’s Apple TV experiment – knowledge that the market may well be heading in a direction but that there are problems and issues in terms of go-to-market. But anyway.)

We learn about two “transportation services” in Ford’s future – LessTravelled, which markets to single people under 40, and FamilyVan, which markets to, well, families. Both of the services offer value-added bolt-ons – LessTravelled subscribers get restaurant discounts, FamilyVan subscribers get things like free delivery of groceries whenever.

So here’s the back-of-an-envelope reckon on how you bring about a self-driving car future:

First step, obviously: figure out a way to make self-driving cars, and makes lots of them.

Then, pick a metro area as your beta-test launch. Follow the model that Google have done – find a city with lots of young people with disposable income and do build-out city-by-city. Get people to campaign to bring coverage to your city – and there’s another turn of phrase – service coverage. Because what you’re selling isn’t a car – it’s a transportation service.

OK, so you’ve done a deal with somewhere like Austin where you’ve come in and made sure that the regulations are friendly. You’re making self-driving cars, and because you’re a company like Google (or whoever) you’ve got lots of capital lying around so you buy up lots of land in strategic areas around the city so you can model distribution. This isn’t a hard problem, because you’ve already got lots of (anonymized) data from Android phones about where people live and where people want to be, so you can model, roughly, what people want to do. Oh, it helps that you also have lots of (anonymized) calendar and search data, so you can model demand and intent. So: deploy all your cars, and do a deal like Car2go where you pay a flat-fee to the city so your cars can park anywhere at any time.

Now: either do some introductory pricing, or, and this is the easy one: just work out what you need to price your cars at to make a profit *and* to be more attractive than the lease-option. Make your cars super covet-worthy, make sure they have lots of USB ports in them for charging Android phones and iPhones, and even have some silly ones in them that have fully stocked bars or whatever, or even hot-tubs. Because remember: you’re selling transportation, not cars.

The last one, I think, is the kicker. Work out what sort of usage plans you need to offer: do you go for the “unlimited” plan (that, thanks to the telecoms industry, is actually a “reasonable use” plan) that offers unlimited miles? Or do you offer Fast Response plans that guarantee access to a car within 3 minutes? Or even cheapo-plans that offer access to a car within 15 to 30 minutes? So many pricing options! So many upgrades! Do you let people pay a premium one day to upgrade to Instant Availability? Or, do you start bundling with other services?

This is why it feels, to me, that the question of ubiquitous self-driving cars is a bit premature. They, like all futures, are just going to be unevenly distributed for a bit. In the UK, rollout of broadband was, well, rolled-out on a geographical basis because of the lack of penetration of cable services. Until local-loop unbundling was introduced across Europe, you had to wait for the incumbent telco to install DSLAMs in your local exchange if you wanted broadband internet access. It feels like there’ll be metro pockets of opportunistic cities that will be up for introducing self-driving car areas in the same way that Google markets “fiber hoods”.

[1] Wednesday Aug. 20, 2064 – Paul Ford, Medium
[2] Monthly Sales Data – Automotive News

Signing off, because I’m on holiday. And as ever, send me notes.

Best,

Dan

Episode One Hundred and Forty Nine: Yes, And…

0.0 Station Ident

A tea-house in Portland’s Pearl district having taken a break and devoured Warren Ellis’ Trees #4. The existential angst of unignorable alien entities — life — setting up on your planet, instantly answering the question as to whether or not we’re alone but then at the same time, posing about a billion other questions. And then, just like the tagline suggests: what if we *were* just ants? What would it feel like to grow up under the shadow of aliens to whom we mean nothing? Whose very presence feels atavistically terrifyingly overpowering but about which we understand hardly anything? Not necessarily an outside context problem (and I imagine you don’t know you’re encountering an outside context problem until it’s too late) because it’s not necessarily fatal, but how do you plan for such a metaphysical event?

1.0 Yes, And…

Following on from yesterday’s episode about desperately needing optimistic and non-dystopic versions of the future (or, even, just slightly-less-dystopic versions) it left me feeling like it’s all too easy to insert the unconstructive “but” whenever I think about what technology can do for us as a tool. For example: “technology can change power structures and allow new opportunities to the formally disenfranchised” can easily be countered with “but all too often, through experience, ends up just reinforcing extant power structures”.

What it feels like we need is some sort of walk-through guide. If only Prima Games published a Human Civilization Walkthrough where we could thumb to the “so you’ve got to the early 21st Century, here are the tactics and plans you need to enact, and the traps you need to avoid to progress to the next level of the game, Super Happy Funtime Post Scarcity Utopia”.

This is perhaps the downside of being infected with the systems-thinking meme. I can see it in myself, and I can see it in my friends: the sort of adherence to the idea that systems are an interesting way to explain why what’s happening is happening (without completely resorting to the needing-to-invent-systems-to-justify-events-in-a-meaningless-universe) inevitably can lead to systems upon systems upon systems, a toddler’s view of the world where we say: well, we’d like fix this bit, which is embedded in this system which means fixing the *system*.

Maybe it’s just the way I think about systems: there’s the risk of introducing a defeatist attitude because the issue is fixing the *system* and not fixing individual parts in the system, right? If you’re a systems-thinker, then don’t you need to change-the-system instead of just address a small part? Can you effect bottom-up, self-directed cell-based change in such a system?

People much more qualified than I probably know the answers to these questions. Or if anything, it’s someone like Hari Seldon, who finally cracked the nut with psychohistory. (If I worked at Facebook or Google, I would totally as a predictable joke have an undisclosed, locked room that I never let anyone in labelled the Prime Radiant).

I had the idea, back when I was in agency land, of trying to persuade Management of the need to open offices not just for geographical opportunity (ie: China’s big! Let’s have an office in China! and South America’s getting the World Cup and the Olympics and its economy is booming! Let’s open an office there!) but for conceptual, market opportunity: ie – and this is going to be predictable – “Digital is big! Let’s open an office there!”

(There were, of course, lots of problems with that argument not least of which was the issue of defining what, exactly a “digital” office would do, but hey, I have a whole bunch of notes. If any massive ad agency networks want to give me a tonne of cash to open up an office for them, boy do I have a proposal for you.

But this thought of “opportunity” clashes up in my head with the thought, back in episode forty seven[1], of the colonial attitude of our latter-day East India Companies in Facebook and Google and the like bringing connectivity to the developing world as “terraforming for capitalism”. The systemic change of environment otherwise inhospitable to the market economy and bringing about conditions for the introduction of capitalism and the market economy to thrive.

I wonder how you find new places to colonise, to terraform. We know about colonising new places, but how do we talk about colonising new conceptual spaces. We talk about things like the Overton Window, but that’s more in terms of the *amount* of space we’re able to slip through and claim and live in, rather than the totality of the possibility space. Some of us wankers even *talk* about the possibility space, in ways that make it sound like we know what we’re talking about, but what we’re just doing is handwaving and saying: hell, looks like there’s lots of things we could do?

So here’s another one.

Good science fiction terraforms the future and makes it hospitable to humans. It takes an undifferentiated mass of potential and shows us livable scenarios, ones which we can point to and can say: I’d like to live there. Science fiction right now is really, really good at being a wanky London estate agent: showing us a bunch of horrible properties at the beginning to sap our will to live, and then – hopefully! – showing us a gorgeous yet unaffordable place at the end that we end up over-financing ourselves for.

I don’t want weak signals. I want beacons, burning fire in the darkness that we can navigate towards. Quantum froth erupting, zero-point powered gridfire, a warm light for all mankind, something that my son can look at and say: that’s the world I want to build, that better one. That’s the one to aim for. I want him to be able to look out say: second star on the right, and straight on ’til morning and for that not to just be a quote from a book but an actual thing he could *do*.

It feels like we have lost faith in ourselves. Some of the best science fiction lately has been lamenting the human condition, not celebrating it. Transcendence doesn’t count because it was just so dire. Her doesn’t count because it was singularly misogynistic, even if it was the best on-screen depiction of a techonlogical singularity. Pacific Rim doesn’t count because it’s just a fun movie about bashing monsters on the head.

Maybe Chris Nolan’s Interstellar will give us some of the wonder back and show us what we can do. Science Fiction’s job isn’t to *only* serve as a warning. It’s usefulness to society isn’t *only* to be the 1984 that we can misquote and point at, to be used as a pawn in a retailer’s war against a publisher. Science Fiction’s role is to inspire us and to show us what we can be capable of, to show how in an insignificant universe we can create significant things that are so much bigger than our own selves and to show *progress* and to bring that progress to light. To be a low-fidelity time-travel device, to show us possible versions of a future, like the Guardian from the City on the Edge of Forever. To prompt and to provoke and to question and then as well to be a symbol because we have the capacity to imagine things and to bring them to life.

Don’t like what we’ve got? Imagine harder and then work harder to bring those ideas to life.

But anyway, I got distracted. I was talking about terraforming and then I went off on one about science fiction and you’ll have to forgive me. Terraforming. How do you terraform new systems? Do you terraform the market economy and capitalism and slowly convert it into a post-scarcity society? How would you terraform a planet like Earth to prepare it for habitation for a fairer, better society?

I saw a post by my friend Chris Locke about “Smartphone Only” countries this morning[3], which feels a bit like the kind of nuke-it-all-and-start-again infrastructure reboot that’s difficult in system-extant Western countries. Ie: if you started from smartphone digital access, what kind of society would you build? Would you be smart enough to build a society around that type of access, or would you face pressure to build around 19th century models?

What I’m getting at is this: Western economies are dealing with the transition from the industrial revolution to an information (ugh) revolution that hasn’t completed yet. There’s a whole bunch of self-interest going on and they’ve gotten fat and complacent off the back off the industrial revolution and post-WW2 era. But, to extend an already wobbly metaphor, Western economies need to maintain backward-compatibliity: smartness is grafted on to 20C ways of thinking and doing, which is why we all still have to go to work every day and public transport is difficult (and, really, public transport is done in the pre-Uber, pre-algorithmic way).

Whereas Myanmar has the clean slate. China, in places, has the clean slate. Singapore does. And we’re seeing what kind of societies and cities *they’re* building. (Well, I’m not. People like Jan Chipchase are, and I’m pretty sure that he’ll tell you that we don’t know the half of it).

Part of this makes me feel sad that I only really know English. I wonder what the rest of the world’s science fiction is like, and what worlds they’re building.

[1] Episode Forty Seven – Building Better Worlds / Terraforming for Capitalism
[2] Beacons!
[3] Smartphone Only Countries – Caribou Digital

It’s 3pm and time for my call. One call and one more coffee meeting and then I’m done for the day. And it’s Friday! I hope you had a good one.

Dan