Portland, OR. Lunch break on Wednesday September 18, 2019. About twenty minutes of typing for sections 1.1 and 1.2 and I cheated on 1.3 by writing it a few days before, but you didn’t even know about that until I told you, thus undermining myself.
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So. Day job. Busy doing strategy with the California Child Welfare Digital Service, most recently helping out on some specific product strategy stuff. One thing that I’m doing at the moment is putting together a sort-of user journey, and it’s not really the user journey that’s the interesting part, more the tiny bits that I get to notice and repeat back and then sit in my head and slowly explode over the course of a few days.
Here’s an example:
In the (fictional!) user journey I’ve been working on, we’ve got an after-hours social worker heading out to a police station to pick up a kid and interview his mother. I’m being somewhat deliberately vague here, partly because I don’t think all the information is necessarily germane.
Anyway, the deal is this: you’re doing an interview and the big thing to pick up on is you’re not allowed to take anything in with you. No pen or pencil. No paper. Definitely no laptop - and you don’t want to be looking at a screen doing that thing where a doctor is typing into an EHR like Epic in your appointment, and not looking at you.
There is a ton of information you’re picking up in conversation - names, addresses, phone numbers, doctors, hopefully a family member who the poor kid can stay with because they’re not going home with mum that night. And all of this in a potentially hostile situation where you’re desperately trying to build rapport.
Anyway, the way systems work at the moment is all of this stuff says in the head of the social worker. As soon as they get out of the interview, they might be able to scribble some of this stuff down.
But it feels like this information starts degrading the moment it isn’t captured. Second by second, there’s a chance of entirely human misremembering or mistranscribing. And this information is critical.
The systems I’ve seen - and the workflows and practices that have been described to me - all more or less revolve around a contact note, or an interview report. A long-form narrative. And you’d be right in thinking that the long-form narrative only gets done when our social worker gets back to the office, has a few minutes, and then starts typing it up.
I get why this is. It’s because a government function like child welfare is administered. It requires documents and forms and those narratives are essential. But right now, more or less, structured, relevant information that could be acted upon is only really stored in the unstructured text narrative. Little Charlie has a bee sting allergy and needs an epi-pen? Goes in the narrative. Just scribble it down until you get to the office.
There’s two kinds of data here, and I think we’ve only really got systems for the first kind.
First, we’ve got admin-based, task-based, workflow-based systems. Fill in this document. Write this report. Get through to the next screen, the next level.
But the work of child welfare doesn’t fit in process flows. It includes critical information that you might come across organically. Someone might mention something important in a phone call, like a previously unknown-to-you relative who might be a great emergency placement. This kind of information is called family finding, and it doesn’t happen at Step X of Y. It happens all the time. And, it kind of should, right?
So you’ve got a second system. A longitudinal, immutable datastore attached to a person. Everything that you find out about that person, at whatever point in time, ideally captured in a structured format, and recordable in under 1-2 seconds. Not, I don’t think, a “medical notes” section, where you’d scribble the bee sting allergy and epi-pen. I think we can do better than that.
In other words, your task-based, document and form-based flow for capturing information and your person-based flow, for adding important, relevant information quickly.
Because I strongly believe we’re missing something if we don’t capture information as soon as possible, and that we need to offer another route. Narratives aren’t the only way.
(And yes, I know it’s more complicated than this. But consider the high-level this system-and-not-that-system view.)
Which title is from internet friend Malka Older (you should read her Infomacracy series). You’ll understand why.
So imagine I have a call with someone and we’re talking about the issues local governments are facing. One of the things that comes up is security: you remember cities keep getting ransomwared, right?
And imagine that you’re a small city, a population less than 100,000 and you suddenly discover a compromised server and oh shit, you think, I have no idea what it’s doing. I have no idea how long it’s been like this. And, you know, you’re one person and it’s a tiny city and I dunno, it’s running Solaris or NT4 or something that deep down you might be ashamed or embarrassed about but it’s not like you’ve got money, and what are you going to do, migrate to the “cloud”? You? On your own? Yeah, right.
You don’t even know what to google, other than “what to do when you’re being ransomwared”, and you’re out of your depth and afraid, and you really could do with not losing your job.
Imagine this happening: you talk to your boss who’s very understanding and you call the FBI and tell them what happened. And the FBI take down your information and say, “oh great, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get back to you.” And you and your boss look at each other like, are these guys for real, and you say: “What, you’re not going to help us?” and the FBI say: “we’ve got a lot going on right now, you’re on our list. We’ll get back to you.”
OK, you think. Guess we’ll called Homeland Security. So I guess you find a phone number for Homeland Security and you tell them the same thing as you told the FBI and guess what happens. They say: “oh great, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get back to you.” And you ask if they can help and they also say: “Yeah, we’ll get back to you, we’ve got a long list.” And your jaw hits the floor again, but it’s not like you’re really that surprised right now because bureaucracies, amirite, you’re already working in one.
So you call your State government, I dunno, their technology people. You look up on their website the contact details for the Chief Security Officer, which, let’s be honest, took a bit of time because jeez, how hard should it be to find a phone number for someone. Anyway, you call them up and it goes like this:
“Hey,” you say. “This stuff happened and, like, do you have any advice about what to do?”
And they say: “Huh. Did you try calling the FBI?”
And I’m not saying that this happens all the time, but, you know. Imagine if it did happen or the time, or imagine if it was happening right now.
So I mused about this, because the question is: you’re a small city and you just got “pwned” as the kids call it, and you can’t afford $60,000 for a consultant to come and tell you to do a bunch of stuff, nobody’s being helpful… what do you do? Who do you call? Is there something better to do than google for “help with ransomware”? How do you know what to trust?
And Malka very helpfully replies (and I take this in good spirit) and says: “This feels like a pitch for the Leverage-meets-Parks and Rec show we all need”, to which my only reasonable response is: of course it is, and I would like to collaborate with you on this pitch during our copious free time.
Right. So just to be clear, this was a totally made-up story. OK?
And it would be great if John Rogers got in touch. Again.
(In this bit, I’m experimenting with HTML inline tweets which kind of offends my sensibilities of this starting out as a plaintext newsletter.)
This one will get lighter, I promise. In a sort of “I guess we have to laugh otherwise we’re living in a hellscape” way.
Xeni, who I would like to say is a very nice Internet Friend, has been screaming about MIT and the MIT Media Lab’s connections with Jeffrey Epstein, who let’s all take a moment to remember was a convicted sex offender, pleading guilty to a state charge of procuring for prostitution a girl below age 18.
The other day, Xeni tweeted that:
And because Xeni is an internet friend I felt able to respond to her through pop culture, which is to say, I said to her:
And I feel good about that tweet because a little while later, Xeni changed her Twitter display name to Warrant Officer Ripley:
I know I’m not the first person to make this observation, and I’m reasonably sure that I may even have written about it before: the easy joke is that Alien (1979) (and the subsequent movies involving Ripley) essentially tells a farcical story of the consequences of not listening to women.
I am not going to give you a spoiler warning for a 40 year old movie, but the basic gist is that the crew of the Nostromo, a deep space tug, get diverted by an apparent distress call, investigate an alien ships ruin and put their faces where they should not. Kane, one of the three crew investigating the ruin, gets attacked by an alien organism, and everything starts to go in your predictable cascade of bad decisions the moment Kane, the captain and navigator try to get back on the ship.
Ripley, who holds the position of Warrant Officer refuses to let the team on-board because, well, Kane has an alien organism stuck to his face.
Of course, Ripley is overruled by Ash, the Nostromo’s Science Officer (of whom more later), the air lock is duly opened and everything goes to pot.
All caught up? Great.
In the movies that follow, and in my opinion most clearly Aliens (1986), nobody, and especially men in positions of power, listens to Ripley. This succession of people (again, mostly men) Not Believing A Woman results in most cases their respective grisly demise, assortedly being bit, eaten, set on fire, burned with acid and, for one particular character, a marginally redemptive sacrificial suicide by grenade.
But Alien and Aliens is a story about greed and James Cameron and Ridley Scott are problematic (the sooner our societies are able to accept that we are flawed humans, and yet still humans who are capable of improving ourselves, the better), and look here comes the analogy, the pop-culture parable.
It turns out the crew of the Nostromo were purposefully diverted to this planet by the Company, the crew’s employers, to find this alien artifact, on the hunch that there might be something valuable there. It turns out there is, and the enforcer for this operation is Ash, the aforementioned Science Officer. Ash, in a deft act of misdirection, is not a human but instead is a synthetic, an android, to which I say: are we trying to say that this evil, this disregard for human life in the service of potential profit is accomplishable only when a non-human is in charge? No of course not, because Ash is also a symbol of the other and something creepy being in charge, of being betrayed, of someone following their masters. Or, even, just following orders.
Are you getting it yet?
Sure, Alien is a horror movie but it’s a horror movie underpinned by greed, and ends-justifies-the-means. The crew are expendable, because the profit is too great. As one of the sane ones, while Ripley is overruled by Ash, Dallas, her captain also pleads with her. And, you know, that’s kind of Dallas’ job: he is responsible for his crew; he should never have been out there in the first place but for the Company and accomplice Ash.
But Ripley is the one who has to say no, which is a bit like the den mother having to say to the boys, look: rules are rules and I know you don’t like it but it’s for your own good and we don’t allow alien organisms into our house.
MIT’s leadership are the greedy ones. Epstein is the one dangling money outside, and if it’s not goddamn obvious, that money was goddamn toxic. Epstein was toxic. He was the shitty queen laying alluring eggs and someone out there decided: you know what? What’s a few dead people. What’s a few trafficked kids. We’re gonna get us some money.
And Xeni and Sarah and so many others were the women trying to keep the air lock closed.
Seven years later, in the sequel Aliens, James Cameron’s commentary gets even more on the nose, which I guess isn’t really that out of the ordinary against a backdrop of Reaganomics and Wall Street’s Greed Is Good a year later in 1987.
It’s easy to think of Aliens as the war movie sequel to the horror movie original, and sure, that’s fine, but it doesn’t help me with my pop-culture analogy, so instead I’m going to use it to just underscore the point about shitty capitalism excusing shitty behavior, but in space.
The deal with Aliens is that after Ripley drifting through space for a heartbreaking amount of time — having promised to be home for and worried about missing her daughter’s eleventh birthday, she instead missed her daughter’s entire life — she is discovered, rehabilitated and... submitted to a board of enquirer for her role in quite reasonably self-destructing the refinery rig her tug was, uh, tugging, in the course of escaping the alien methodically hunting and killing her crewmates.
Much like Felicity Huffman getting off with a couple of weeks, Ripley is fortunate in not being found liable for the destruction of the Nostromo ($42 million dollars -- adjusted -- notes the insurance investigator, drily) nor the refinery payload, and instead having acted with questionable judgment and her commercial flight license is indefinitely suspended.
I guess the Ellen Ripley/Felicity Huffman comparison holds up in other ways; Huffman similarly has suffered a catastrophic change in relationship with her daughter.
Anyway: the entire board of inquiry scene is an exercise of a Woman Not Being Believed - there’s no evidence of anything that Ripley claimed, and indeed the investigators make fun of her, effectively air-quoting her deposition about the nature of the alien’s “acid for blood” and predilection for “gestating in a human host”. (Little do they know how flexible the alien will turn out to be in its host gestation choices!). Ripley’s story turns out be treated so incredulously that she ends up being released on a period of psychometric probation.
And then the gaslighting starts.
See, this whole while, Carter Burke, a Company representative, has been attaching himself to Ripley. He met her when she woke up. He’s concerned about her. He coaches her before the board of inquiry, advising her to be unemotional and cool, and she is not unemotional and cool, she is angry at not being believed after an unimaginably traumatic event *and* she is worried that whatever did this to her crew is still out there. She isn’t just worried about herself, she’s worried about everyone else, too.
And so Burke drops the mic on her: everything is fine, because there’s colonists living on the world where everything went wrong for Ripley. There’s no monsters. Families are out there. And Ripley of course is terrified: this is a goddamn stupid thing to do and then Burke must be some sort of magician because he manages to find another mic on his person and drops that one, too: well, the thing about the colony is they just lost contact with it. Oops.
In the span of just a few minutes, Burke has taken Ripley from relieved to terrified all over again, and then he sees fit to offer her a Faustian bargain. He can get her license back. Because without her license, she can’t work. All she has to do is sign up for this little jaunt with a company of marines, go check out the Colony and say hi to everyone who we’re all sure are fine, they just unplugged their modem or something, and then be off on their merry way back home to Gateway Station, Sol System.
But Burke’s a fucking liar, isn’t he.
Because here are the money quotes:
Shortly after Ripley renders her suggestion about what to do about the alien infestation at the colony ("I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit -- it's the only way to be sure."), Burke, issues a sort of middle management woah nelly, and points out that "First, this physical installation had a substantial dollar value attached to it-"
Which is always the argument, isn't it? For many, the Media Lab is rotten to the core now, and yes there are many people working there who don't deserve to be stuck in this miss and had nothing to do with it and are victims of absent leadership. But whenever anyone does tend to suggest burning the whole thing down, someone like Burke always ends up coughing quietly in the corner of the room, raising their hand, and saying: "Well actually, if we burned the whole thing down..."
Of course, there's more! What else might Burke have done? Well, he was the one who ordered the colonists to go take a look-see at Ripley's alleged alien ship, the one with the eggs and the bursting and the male horror about being impregnated. Because Ripley's found the log, found the order, and tells him: "You sent them out there and you didn't even warn them, Burke."
And look. I'm not saying that MIT's leadership, that people like Joi Ito did something like sending an innocent family out into a desolate hellscape to get them infected with a horrific gestates-in-humans, acid-for-blood alien just for the money. I mean, not just for the money, right?
Well, after this accusation from Ripley, Burke kind of shrugs. "It was a bad call, Ripley, that's all. A bad call."
Anyway, I have @yesthatkarim to thank for getting to the inevitable punchlines before I do, and doing it with animated gifs and oh my god, are we going to have animated gifs inline? I think we might try that:
(A tweet from @yesthatkarim: “Management trying to explain that they thought it was ok to accept the donations, knowing what they did at the time” followed by a gif of Burke gesticulating and saying: “So I made a decision and it was wrong.”
(A tweet from @yesthatkarim: “Management when you propose making sweeping changes to the institution” with a gif of Burke saying “Hold on a second. This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it.”)
I mean that latter one is very I Feel Seen and I’m In This Picture And I Don’t Like It for anyone who’s worked in, or is working in (sorry) a large institutional bureaucracy.
Anyway. Alien and Aliens, eh? Who would’ve thought it included a pointed commentary on capitalism and management strategy? (A bunch of media studies and film studies students, plus liberal arts graduates, I bet. Again, I do not expect this in any way to be a novel observation).
No And Finally this time, because there’s a lot here already. I should also probably get lunch.
Thank you to all of my subscribers so far, not-paid and paid! You are all fantastic human beings and remember that we all deserve love, attention, respect and empathy just by virtue of existing, no matter what we may have learned growing up.
It is raining here, still.
Oh, and my letter T fell off the other day, but I popped it back on and this is like the 15in Macbook Pro (Late 2016) equivalent of being old and having your knee go out, or dislocating a shoulder and now I need to make a doctor’s appointment and hope the co-pay won’t be too high.
One of the next topics is probably going to be along the lines of this tweet about the FT’s manifesto on capitalism-but-better because it is always nice (although I know some of my readers will strenuously object on the basis of revolution) to be retweeted by Bill Clinton’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy (Hi, Brad!)
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