s3e13: They Should Have Sent A Poet 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

1:37pm on Monday, 18 April 2016 at the XOXO Outpost in Portland again. It’s 82 degrees fahrenheit, 27.7 degrees celsius outside, an unreasonably warm mid-April, which means breaking out the shorts, t-shirts and baseball caps all over again. This morning has mainly been a slow-motion dragging out of bed, the causes of which are hard to tease out between the ups-and-downs of major depressive disorder, dysthymia, the medication I’m on or just plain not going to bed early enough in the evening. Anyway: conference calls done, notes taken, thoughts fired in the way that brains do: the thinking machines that just look for patterns and if they can’t find any, will just create them in the noise.

1.0 They Should Have Sent A Poet

I took a break from playing the latest Dark Batman: Drive Around With A Car And Hurt People But Don’t Actually Murder Them[0] because at some point (and you’d imagine this would be a part of Mr. Man’s development) grappling your way around a city and ceaselessly pummeling people (criminals, to be fair) into something approaching a persistent vegetative state gets, like, super wearing on the soul, you know? So I’ve been playing Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture[1] instead. I say “playing”, but some people derogatorily say “walking simulatoring” because Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture is that sort of environmental storytelling that happens to take place on hardware that’s normally used to play games. The gameplay mechanic is pretty thin, but hey: it’s a form of entertainment and more like a gentle meander through what it might be like to, well, discover yourself in a scarily-accurate and grim-nostalgia-inducing 1980s British countryside village that’s found itself in the middle of an Outside Context Problem. I start with this because Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture is the kind of game that gets criticism because, well, it’s not really a game, and the point of Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture is the *experience*, which is where developers The Chinese Room[2] really shine. Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture is more poetry and literature than it is “game”, even moreso than games like qwop and recent darling, Stephen’s Sausage Roll[3, 4], more like a David Lodge[5] novel maybe, and I think I’m only really drawing *that* connection because of The Chinese Room’s history in academia.

Anyway: they should’ve sent a poet. Buzzfeed has a new arts/culture section[6] and, the buried lede of this long thought is me thinking a bit more coherently about the Washington Post’s rather sensationalist headline proclaiming that “the next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets”[7]. So. Some unstructured Short Thoughts that haven’t really congealed into a Long Thought yet, just random firings reaching for greater meaning and coordination:

– can we expect what happened to marketing (as a stereotypically feminine and soft skill[citation needed]) when it became Growth Hacking and the domain of techbros[citation needed, but probably not, right?] to happen to the poets who are now flooding[citation needed, right?] into the valley? At some point, someone somewhere is hiring MFAs or whoever to write for Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the next wave of platform-powered Bots. At places like Apple, I’m reasonably sure that writers for Siri are kind-of in MarComm and less in the product side, and fall more under Schiller’s domain. Not sure with Microsoft, though. But while there’s some room at the top with our big whale bots, there’s way more room at the bottom where squillions of enterprising deep-learning/artificial-intelligence/bot-buzzword startups might want to snap up a cheap MFA to “do the writing” and imbue personality.

– ah, personality. Which means we’re always a hop, skip and a jump away from Genuine People Personalities (R) and brand voices and how can we steer this back into engineering and back into a more male domain, rather than having Feelings about things? Oh right: we can call it Personality Engineering or Personality Hacking, or Tone Engineering or Emotion Engineering (we all remember the stupendously hyped PlayStation 2 CPU, the Emotion Engine[8], right? The one that was the first step down the awkward path that led to the somewhat terrifying to program PlayStation 3 and its Cell?)

– None of this thought of course is worth mentioning without tying back to Slack and, in headline-worthy style, pointing out the pedigree of (Stewart) Brand and (Anna) Pickard, respectively co-founder and editorial director of the startup[9].

OK, fine, but where’s this thought going? I guess that in the short term, there’s a hell of a lot of copy that’s going to need to be produced for dumb-as-sack-of-nails bots that are finite state machines and the kind that just go around in loops because they can’t understand what you’re doing. So yay, copywriters, there’s work there. In the future, though? Any chance of a huge aggregation of people just writing input text for unsupervised machine learning? “Please complete your task today by writing 100 example customer service interactions that would provide a positive emotional outcome for feeding into the Watson”.

Quite frankly, I’m more intrigued (not positively excited, mind, this is just “intrigued” as in: it’s just an idea and would probably turn out to be horrible further down the line for everyone involved) in running some sort of in-depth textual and semantic analysis against a giant corpus of customer service interactions (or whatever version of deep learning floats your boat this particular week) to figure out, well, if there’s anything to figure out? The obvious point to *that* suggestion is that you could probably work out the *exact same things* more quickly by just asking your front-line support agents, but hey, what organization has ever thought that’s been a good idea?

[0] Batman: Arkham Knight – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[1] Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[2] The Chinese Room
[3] Stephen’s Sausage Roll
[4] Stephen’s Sausage Roll review | ZAM
[5] David Lodge (author) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[6] BuzzFeed Reader
[7] The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets – The Washington Post
[8] Emotion Engine – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[9] That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket – Forbes

2.0 Service Design

Louise Downe has written something super useful about Service Design[0] and also reframed what it is that the UK’s Government Digital Service is intending to do over the course of the current parliament: “transform government, together.” I like Downe’s post because it breaks down a lot of the noise around service design into something that’s plain language and pretty easy to understand if you’re never been exposed to that world before. It’s not about technology, not even really about digital, but just about helping people to get things done. In government’s case, the jobs-to-be-done are ones like buying a house, learning to drive or registering to become a licensed worker of some kind, like a babysitter.

To the extent that this has an impact on “brands”, the only real place where the excitement about GDS translates is to the jobs-to-be-done and the brand’s ability to complete that job in the first place. That’s why if you’re working in advertising or communications or whatever and you’re super excited about what service design means to you, you’ve (in my humble opinion) got a bit of your work cut out for you the more your brand crosses over into jobs-to-be-done that *can* be performed (in some way) online. Downe describes GDS’ way of working as taking three forms: from end-to-end (ie from the beginning of the transaction to the end of the transaction from the user’s point of view), from front-to-back (everything from front-of-office to back of office and everything in between, from policy, legislation and so-on) and in every channel (ie: not just digital. Remember, jobs-to-be-done don’t care about the channel in which they’re initiated. They just want to be done). The (a?) part that is hard about this is that Downe is explicitly describing things that work across silos and require radical means of collaboration. Organizations could, in the past, work as series of black box departments with their inputs and outputs being defined on paper forms. Perform the correct incantation by filling in a form the right way and providing it the appropriate department and then {magic occurs} and you get what you want. You don’t need to think about what happens inside. Sure, that worked great for moving bits of paper around, but part of the whole problem here is that we’ve got the opportunity to do things *without* paper. And the organizations we have a super optimized for doing operations atomically, handing them off to another team who performs another function and so-on. There’s hardly any room for top-down or bottom-up rearchitecting or redesigning of the entire thing.

I think this is why in some ways I get super annoyed about certain tasks being nigh-on-impossible or, to put it politely, difficult to achieve online by organizations that really should know better. From the outside, it’s super easy to say: “hey, I should be able to unsubscribe to this thing. Why is it easier for me to pay you money than it is to stop paying you money?”

Actually… I’m going to stop that thread there and jump into a different one because (invariably), I got distracted, and there’s something more interested that I want to spin up instead. So. Via aforementioned Butterfield, here’s a blog post from Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith institute arguing for a universal basic income from the point of view of neoliberalism[1]. The point that I want to pick at is the phrase only a few paragraphs into Bowman’s piece where he quotes Laurie Penny on her utopianism:

“What would society look like if that sort of freedom were available to everyone: if advances in technology and productivity could benefit not only the very rich, but all of us?”

In response, Bowman says

“but most people actually benefit quite a lot from advances in technology and productivity already. 66% of British adults own a smartphone  (also known as “the sum of all human knowledge, in your pocket”)

which is where I scream out that I beg to differ. I think there’s a fallacy here and a delta that some people can see between the advances in technology and productivity that *could* be versus the advances in technology and productivity that *are*. It’s not enough to say that 66% of British adults own a smartphone and leave it like that and say that we’re all (most, I suppose) benefiting from advances in technology and productivity. But! Not All Productivity! Not All Advances! In a “what have the Romans ever done for us” style stance, what I’m thinking about isn’t a sort of “well look, smartphones actually haven’t improved life for many people”, but instead “gosh, smartphones and technology *could* have improved life an awful lot *more* and they haven’t – why is that?”

I genuinely do see the service that Uber provides as one that is (abstractly) a good and interesting one, modulo their from my point of view horrendous business practices and communications. In *abstract* they provide flexible income (not employment, though!) and have changed (in some cities! Not all!) the ability of people to get around where there haven’t been good-enough transportation options (anecdata: What Happened When A University Administrator Tried Being An Uber Driver[2]). But I see the *gains* that sticking a networked computer in everyone’s pocket (constant access to information, and so on) at the very least counterbalanced by absolutely horrendous service design.

I know I’m not a luddite. I know I’m not someone who isn’t super over all the new toys and gadgets and wants to try all the things. But at the same time, I find myself in the position where modern life is undoubtedly *more complicated* and an increasing [citation needed] number of customer service situations and interactions where my expectations rapidly converge on “my time is going to be wasted”. I’ll give an example:

I wanted to take my son to the nearby air and space museum. I like going because it’s got an SR-71a Blackbird and I can’t help but be legitimately awed by it, he likes going because it’s got a replica of Spirit/Opportunity, and Mars rovers are, for whatever reason (probably something to do with me, I’ll admit) one of his Favorite Things In The Entire Universe. It is impossible for me to check on the website if the Mars rover replica has returned from cleaning. So I call them up. And someone says yes, of course the rover is here. So we go. No, there is no rover there. I had a whole premonition that, you know what, *no matter what I did* there was nothing I could do to figure out if the rover would be there. Part of this has to do with priors formed by understaffed, underfunded museums and galleries I’ve visited in whatever country where volunteers are pretty much the only thing keeping the institution afloat. But another part of this is a profound irritation that THIS SHOULDN’T BE HARD. You should be able to know, in this age *where we have networked computers in 66% of the population’s pockets* whether a given exhibit is actually in the museum or not. And ideally, perhaps, that interaction could be done without a human, or if it *did* require a human, maybe that human would be able to provide a correct and authoritative answer!

We don’t *have* what technology promised us. Not the technology that we thought we’d get in the Usborne books some of us were fortunate to grow up on. If you took a step back and you said: look, it’s 2016 and we’ve got gigaflops falling out of our ears, a majority of the population has unheard-of networked computing power in their pockets, what do you think that world would look like? Would you say:

– oh hey, yeah, actually, no-one knows if that road is open or shut
– yeah, you need to talk to a human to cancel service because a human needs to do it and you can’t just do it using your magic computer
– a computer can reasonably tell you if it’s looking at a picture of you, but you can’t quickly find out in less than thirty seconds where to recycle this old monitor
– making it super difficult to return something
– anything to do with utilities or banking

is even remotely up to the standard that a magical universe with super scary smart computing devices in most peoples pockets looks like? No. Most things just don’t work. TVs are stupid. No-one knows what AUX means. Even inside the Apple ecosystem you spend time sysadmining for your family or friends. Only recently could you actually book a ticket for a movie, never mind book an appointment with your doctor, or even know if your doctor was running late. Or even manage to pay a doctor’s bill. Or know how much your doctor’s visit was going to cost.

No. We don’t have any of that. We have an unevenly distributed future utopia where some things are available, but a lot of things, a lot of customer service things, a lot of transaction things are still just stupendously *difficult* and *time-consuming* especially for those who are time poor. This is all just bullshit.

[0] What we mean by service design | Government Digital Service
[1] A neoliberal case for a basic income, or something like it — Adam Smith Institute
[2] I run a university. I’m also an Uber driver. – The Washington Post

OK, I’m not exactly sure where all that went. Suffice to say that one of the most interesting replies that I got the other day was from my good friend Tom Armitage who reminded me that VR is a medium, and not a general-purpose computing device. Which doesn’t mean media (mediums?) aren’t interesting or full of potential, just that an entire *general computing device* as a category is pretty, as they say, disruptive.

3:09pm. Send notes!

Best,

Dan