s2e07: Oh, I Don’t Know, Just Everything; A Bit About Brand Advertising Again 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:50pm and I’m at home and I’m angry because I’ve been reading about certain states of the United States and how they treat technology and literally at this point I just cannot even it’s all I can do to  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

1.0 Oh, I Don’t Know, Just Everything

Look, here’s a bunch of things that have been doing the rounds: first, Hossein Derakhshan’s The Web We Have to Save[0], and then Paul Ford’s Fairly Random Thoughts on Ashley Madison & the Swiftly Moving Line[1], add a bit of a quote via Bret Victor[2] from Leslie Lamport about whether we want to go down a biological or provable, logical route with the (systems of) computer systems we’re building[3] and then the one-two punch of Nick Grossman’s thoughts[4, 5] on regulation 2.0 followed with a chaser of the UK Government’s Treasury Spending Review[6].

And yes, I’m still thinking about Paul Mason’s whole thing about What Comes Next After Capitalism Will Surprise You, er, I mean, Post Capitalism.

So. Where were we.

One thing, just one point, from Derakhshan’s essay about the web is the bit about it becoming more like telly and being centralized. I realized that’s two things, but I’m going to treat it like one thing because what he means by television is centralized in the first place. I’m not disagreeing about the central premise of those things. We’ve got big things, network-effects, and agglomerations of people who each have two eyeballs (well, most of them do), and all the attention that that brings.

This is the web we made because – and I can’t remember where I saw this – we (the royal people-who-were-doing-stuff-with-the-web) were busy dicking about (sorry, that was pejorative and I mean it in the nicest possible way) about stuff like standards and accessibility and all that malarkey which meant that we’d ended up with a nice interoperable system where the race to the bottom has now been wholly (well, mostly) funded by advertising money based on not just *actual* attention but the promise of future, fictional, vaporous attention that might be monetized at some point in the future so hey, as Ford points out in *his* essay, there’s no incentive to make your database translucent and sufficiently private with regard to users’ information because you might be able to sell that stuff later. “Data,” Cosmo from Sneakers didn’t say, “is Real Money now and Imaginary Money in the Future.”

Against all of *this* you’ve got governments flailing about because the other end of digital is coming to bite them not on the ass, but literally bite their face off and leave them bleeding in the snow because now Uber won in its fight against NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and, for certain values of “got exactly what they wanted”, got exactly what they wanted in terms of not being regulated and given a free-ish pass to keep doing whatever they feel like.

*That* leads to people like Nick Grossman legitimately pointing out that hey, perhaps governments have been getting this whole regulation thing the wrong way around thanks to how computers have changed the world and *if* we want innovation *and* we want that innovation to happen quickly *and* we want to be able to try new things because if we have to ask for permission for new things those new things will never happen (I’m not *entirely* sure that’s a fair argument, but we’ll take the point, I guess), then we need to stop the entire asking-for-permission-before-we-do-things (i.e. can I please have a license to compete against established transit companies) and then instead create the equivalent of regulatory special-economic-zones or free-regulation-zones where governments say: “hey, this thing [insert the most recent Valley innovation that applies a significantly less-friction market to something that was previously regulated using a mobile application that by the time you read this probably won’t even be a mobile application, it’ll just be a conversational interface in WeChat and have over two hundred and fifty million daily active users in China before you even wake up”, this thing is awesome, we’re going to *pre-emptively* allow you to do it in exchange for ALL THE DATA and then we reserve the right to impose regulation upon you, you new thing that we like, if at any point ALL THE DATA starts showing us things that we think we have to regulate”.

To which: hm, okay. At a general level: yes, of course governments should be getting usage data to better figure out how to deliver the services that they provide and to ensure the safety of their citizens. Part of the whole deal with regulation of cabs in the first place (and part of the story that we’re being repeatedly reminded of right now) was to help your average citizen not get raped or attacked or killed in a cab. Which is nice. But here’s the thing: there’s the minimum-level-of-service that in America is along the lines of the We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident and some of those things are like: hey, you should probably not run a racist cab company because we happen to think that All Men/People Are Born Equal and that’s a pretty important belief that we’ve decided to ground our country in, recent continuing evidence to the contrary.

So yes: cities – governments – should wise up and I don’t understand why, if they’re not, they’re not already requiring these new types of services *as a condition of operation* to submit anonymized usage data so governments can figure out how to do one of their baseline jobs which is to *ensure the security, safety and wellbeing of their citizens*.

One amusing thing about the whole Portland thing was that it was *easy* for the new digital services to provide usage data on things in the public interest like wheelchair accessibility (number of requests, time to response etc) but that for the *traditional* cab companies:

“The data provided by the cab companies about their wheelchair accessible rides appeared particularly problematic. Only three taxi companies submitted data. The city initially reported that the cabs provided 2,000 accessible rides, but that number included medical transport rides in error, and later dropped to 640.”[7]

they couldn’t or didn’t even do it! Way to look bad, traditional cab companies!

Drumroll, because it’s coming: surprise! It comes back to figuring out what user needs are and satisfying them! New disruptive digital services are a great way to elicit more information about what citizens need! At the same time, if our governments are going to ask for that data, *we already know how to build translucent databases* that will let us, oh, I don’t know, keep track of unique incidents in a way that lets us identify trends without identifying unique individuals! We know how to do this!

But no.

That would be too easy. It would be too easy to just make one requirement, one simple requirement, that new digital services in certain areas provide anonymized usage data. It’s not like we’ve got an entire security apparatus that is actively hoovering up *all of that stuff anyway*.

So this is the thing. If the UK government wants 40% budget cuts in spending (but also, presumably preserve the semblance of a fiction of delivering at least the same or better level of service) then in theory *yes* we can do that, but only if we know what to do and where to do it. And that means gathering a *shit-tonne* of data about us collectively. Which is where everything comes to a head, of course, and how it’s awesome how governments and the private sector have been building up public trust in exactly that sort of thing because oh hell, they haven’t at all.

[0] The Web We Have to Save — Matter — Medium – by Hossein Derakhshan
[1] Fairly Random Thoughts on Ashley Madison & the Swiftly Moving Line — The Message — Medium – by the Internet’s Paul Ford
[2] Bret Victor, always Bret Victor
[3] Leslie Lamport: The Future of Computing: Logic or Biology – via Bret Victor
[4] Here’s the solution to the Uber and Airbnb problems — and no one will like it – Nick Grossman
[5] Regulation, the Internet Way: A Data-First Model for Establishing Trust, Safety, and Security – Nick Grossman again
[6] Spending Review 2015: A country that lives within its means – sorry, the main report is a PDF but basically 40% cuts and the opportunity to radically reinvent public services using digital delivery
[7] 3 Big Takeaways From Portland’s Data On Uber And Taxis . News | OPB

2.0 A Bit About Brand Advertising Again

Two things. One: this Land Rover thing[0] and two, this F21 (sorry, Forever21) Thread thing[1], both of which are examples of Digital Advertising and both of which are examples of Things About The Thing That Don’t Strictly Make The Thing Any Better But Hey At Least You Know About It Now And That’s Good Enough For Me, The Chief Marketing Officer.

This is one of the reasons why I can’t work in advertising anymore, not if the clients want that stuff and not if agencies want to make that stuff (and are correspondingly rewarded for it). I mean, the F21 Thread Screen is *nice* and beautiful but I’m not exactly sure what it does for Forever 21. And Breakfast[2] are awesome and make beautiful things and the world is undoubtedly a little bit more beautiful thanks to what they made, but again, I’m not entirely sure it, uh, Solved A Problem for Forever 21.

[0] How many saw Land Rover Adventuregram on Instagram? via Denise Wilton
[1] F21 Thread Screen — BREAKFAST
[2] BREAKFAST

So I guess that was 1584 words in about twenty minutes. And I didn’t even rant about government technology procurement. YOU’RE NEXT ON MY LIST, EXPENSIVE GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY PROCUREMENT. LOOK OUT.

Best,

Dan

PS. Send notes, I like to receive them, even if they’re just “hi”.