s2e31: Coffee; Brands; Stream, Stock and Flow; Paperless 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

Monday, 21 December 2015 variously at a coffee shop and the co-working space after a morning spent trying to get ready for a conference call and failing because *someone* couldn’t make his mind up whether he wanted to go to a playdate and whether or not he wanted to wear clothes or not.*

Listening to: a screener copy of The Martian so there’s a high background-level of competence.

* For the sake of clarity, not me.

1.0 Coffee

At the coffee shop this morning triaging email, I couldn’t help* overhearing a conversation that was going on not just at the table next to me, but *two tables over*. The conversation neatly fitted, I think, into the burgeoning genre of “horrific coffeeshop pitch reality documentary” and went a little bit like this.

There was a dude (an older one, of the white variety, toting the requisite Macbook) presenting to another dude (a younger one, also of the white variety and sporting the requisite tattoos and sharp more-or-less designer stubble) and I swear in the space of around thirty minutes, the conversation covered the following beats:

– an app (iOS)
– that does scavenger hunts
– and uses gamification
– on college campuses
– that “takes a physical activity and turns it into a digital mobile activity” and “brands love that” because it’s “engagement”
– and is super exciting becaue scavenger hunts used to cost around $75,000 for brands to run and the pitch here is being able to run one that only costs $5,000
– but there’s more! The scavenger hunt app isn’t just an app, it’s a *platform*. And that platform isn’t just a scavenger hunt platform, it’s a *communications platform*.
– because once something’s a communications platform, you can, um, do communications on it. Like “send Amber alerts” and “job offers” and all kinds of stuff.
– in fact, it’s more than a communciations platform. They’re calling it a “content delivery platform,” which I have to admit is super smart because *everything* is content these days and content *does* need delivering, and if you don’t put content on a platform there’s a chance it could be super unstable and fall over and make a mess on the floor, so you better make sure it’s on a Supported Platform.
– for completeness, let’s make sure that this content delivery platform is also saas because a) saas is like sassy and also b) like sass and who doesn’t like that?
– we also have to make sure that the “back-end” is mentioned because it processes “millions of pieces of data” using “algorithms”

The best part of course was that I stopped paying attention after a while because really how could I keep paying attention, but what brought me back in was hearing that “these guys are coming in to our $3.6 million round” to which the only reasonable response was something along the lines of double-taking and nearly but not actually choking on my coffee (but you can imagine I did for dramatic effect), but then it was all ok because that was immediately followed up with “but we can’t get you a letter of intent because we’re still looking for a lead investor.”

I am, of course, allowed to make fun of all of this because about eight years ago I was having the exact same conversations only they made *even less sense than they do now* because hardly anyone had smartphones back then and the internet was still just a thing that would happen in the future.

If you want to know where this might be going, you should probably have a think about what Niantic Labs[1] have been doing because I feel like whatever problems I might have had with Ingress (namely: b-grade plot, trope-ridden narrative and game world that works for a small/niche audience but could be much bigger, interesting funding opportunities given their original backer), they’ve got a much better chance at building something truly pervasive, ambient and location-based with their Pokemon joint-venture. In other words: I think no-one’s succeeded yet at making something that’s playful and that is location *aware*, rather than location *based*. Clue: one of these is more passive than the other.

* obviously I could help, and a better person than me would’ve kept this all to himself, but at the same time I am not a better person than me, I am simply just me.

[1] ‎www.nianticlabs.com

2.0 Brands

Netflix continue to confuse me with their weird-what-is-it “Make It” sort-of campaign which most recently has made some Netflix Socks[1] and initially got some attention by coming out with the Netflix-and-Chill-switch[2]. The, er, “things” are variously a set of “maker” tribe-y instructions to hack together a piece of Netflix-related functionality. First, a switch that “dims the lights, silences incoming calls, orders takeout, and turns on Netflix”. The socks are described as something that will “detect when you’ve dozed off and send a signal to your TV, automatically pausing your show. Never again will you binge-watch yourself to sleep, only to wake up two seasons later wondering what happened”.

A few observations: these aren’t necessarily *complicated* projects, but they involve soldering, buying a bunch of components and doing some coding. If you’ve done this sort of thing before, maybe they’d each take around a day to put together and get working? So my assumption is that *not many people will actually do these things*. The value, then, is in the signal that the projects send, not in getting people do the projects.

I still don’t understand the point of this. Is it advertising? Not really. What’s it trying to say?

The Switch project had copy like this:

How you watch is in your hands.
of which, sure, ok, that’s a good way to talk about the benefits of Netflix albeit in a relatively round-about kind of way.

There was also copy like this:

Let’s think bold and create things.

of which, I literally have *no idea what this has to do with Netflix*, which last I checked was the equivalent of an online tv and movie network.

Netflix wants more suggestions for more projects, though:

Our Netflix socks are inspired by ideas from Netflix users. If you have an idea about what could make the Netflix experience truly amazing, tell us all about it below.
Like, what kind of ideas could make the Netflix experience truly amazing? Here’s some:

– Browser extensions that let me quickly see if a movie I’m looking at Amazon or wherever is available on Netflix
– Better reminders that let me know when movies or tv shows I’m interested in become available
– A way to watch tv shows or movies at the same time as other people
– More tv shows
– More movies
– Better recommendations
– A cheaper Netflix
– Special watch-with-directors-and-cast events
– A creepy end-of-year report to share with friends

Who is this for? Is it just an exercise in PR so that The Verge or Wired or Fast Company or MAKE magazine will write a piece about how Netflix is embracing Hacker Culture and look what you can make with Netflix right now? Because…  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

[1] Netflix socks
[2] Netflix switch

3.0 Stream, Stock, Flow

Via a work slack[1], a re-pointer to this Ribbonfarm essay about organizations, organization charts and stock/stream/flow[2] which is all about trying to either:

a) get involved in some kind of never-ending red-queen race to have More Perfect Understanding of the environment that your organization is in so you can continually adapt to it in a command-and-control kind of way (loosely); or

b) give up in terms of command-and-control and hierarchies and instead adopt some sort of looser, holocratic, self-organizing cell-ish organization based around accepting that information is always coming in, isn’t perfect, everything is adapting to defer/empower decision making to those with the skills and the interest.

To which I quipped:

In the future, organizations will “spin out” successful Slack channels instead of teams, groups or divisions. [3]

I say this as someone who – through my current work with Californian state government – is figuring out how you move not just *an* organization, but multiple organizations, from a culture that’s *over there* to one that’s *over here*. Example: one of the teams that I’m working with has never been able to use something like Google Docs before, so their traditional method of collaborating on a document is everyone sitting in a conference room and projecting a Word document, in Word, up onto the wall and people reading through it together. You know, the kind of digital document equivalent of those giant maps-are-the-territory sandpits that the military would use to move troops and materiel around during stuff like World War II with those long sticks. That, but with a Word document projected onto a screen. But! You give them permission and the space to work with Google Docs and to use features like live collaboration and they’re *screaming* along. It’s practically revelatory to them, and I’m not saying that as some sort of hyperbole. So even pieces like Google Docs nee Writely[4], which are around 10 years(!) old now are still bits-of-the-future that aren’t evenly distributed yet. Wieden+Kennedy, the ad agency that I was working at, had only last year transitioned to your regular-old we-host-our-own-Exchange Server to, I think, Google Apps for Work/Enterprise/Whatever, and the usage of Google Docs was limited to that kind of consumerization of IT where technically, you really *weren’t supposed to use it* but how else were some people going to get their work done?

Of course, the way that this happens is that things like Slack start eating organizations like that from the inside out, like some sort of necrotizing fasciitis, a productivity/self-organization infection that looks like it could be threatening and isn’t understood by the rest of the body, and may well be attacked by in-house white blood cells.

Stock and Flow is a reference, as always, to Robin Sloan’s concept of Flow (the feed) and Stock (the durable, long-term stuff)[5] from 2010.

[1] Seriously, how many Slacks are you people in right now? Right now I’m logged into three Slacks that probably count as professional and another three that count as social, never mind all the ones I’ve joined but have logged out of because who has the time to be in all these Slacks?
[2] The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart
[3] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “In the future, organizations will “spin out” successful Slack channels instead of teams, groups or divisions.”
​[4] Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[5] Stock and flow / Snarkmarket

4.0 Paperless

Parking for later, or rather, noting here for further random thoughts later, Gene Becker’s tweet about possible computing futures[1], for which I’m including a very rare image:

An image of the next wave of computing adapted from “Communications Challenges of the Digital Information Utility” from the HP Journal, December 1997, showing a series of evolutions in computing from 1960 to 2020, covering batch computing and timesharing/mainframes, distributed computing/minis, networked personal computing/microcomputers, internet/web computing/open systems of clients and servers, cloud services/mobile apps and devices and adding finally intelligent services/pervasive computing.

I had one snarky, unhelpful reaction to this which was along the lines of technologists and people excited about technology (I explicitly include myself in this category) being simultaneously too excited about the potential of things and the speed at which change happens and of others to recognize the change too slowly when it does actually happen. In other words, that predicted change comes across both later than anticipated, but then when it does, it (feels like it) comes more quickly and all at once (when it is happening, and in retrospect).

And all of *that* reaction just provoked the realization that all this talk we’ve had in the 90s about the Paperless Office (you all remember Microsoft at Work[2], right? It was going to do things like unified inboxes and make sure that your fax machines and printers all talked to each other) was that for us to get rid of paper (which, if we get over ourselves, is pretty good at a whole bunch of things) we needed other things that were at least on some axes *at least as good as paper* and that it wasn’t until *afterwards* did we realize what some of those axes might be. Namely, I suggest:

– ubiquity/portability of computation (laptops were a help, but the big thing now is the smartphone in many peoples’ pockets that provides availability to *most* information that is needed in a work context *relatively* quickly and easily, even if it is just “searching your email for the attachment in your inbox”)

– ubiquity/portability of networked communications (some parts network access technologies, all the other parts the global internet super communications highway).

In other words, the piece of internet-connected glass could do more, *different* things that paper does, more quickly.

[1] Gene Becker on Twitter: “Ceci n’est pas un futur https://t.co/YTkZpJDR5m”
[2] Microsoft at Work – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I was going to write something about Ben Evans’ 16 Mobile Theses[1] today, but I think I’ve written enough. I’ll leave that for next time. I’ve also been thinking about the kind of teams you need to make prototype, usable user interfaces that de-emphasize screens in favour of other modes, which I’ll also leave here for next time.

[1] 16 Mobile Theses | Andreessen Horowitz

OK! 3pm. Send, as ever, notes. They are much appreciated!

Dan