Hello! It’s occurred to me in a you’re so vain, you probably think this tweet is about you way that a large proportion of you have no idea who I am or why you signed up for this newsletter in the first place, given the recent completely understandable hiatus and unpredictability of programming. So!
Hello! I am Dan. You are reading a newsletter that is a mostly stream-of-consciousness thinking-out-loud about things that have caught my attention recently. It is hard for me draw a definite line around what will be in this newsletter, unlike other newsletters you may have known and loved.
What I can say, after having done this for after *checks* six years oh my god, is that the things I find interesting generally have something to do with what it is like to be a person, combined with a whole messy bunch of interesting technology.
That means writing about:
people and technology and other people (an especially hot topic apparently)
people and technology and advertising
people and technology and government
people and technology and health
people and mental health and technology
people and videogames
and, well, you get the idea (I hope). Admittedly, the kind of technology I write about is mostly the kind of stuff you might buy in a Best Buy or a Dixons (do they still have Dixons in the UK?) with a little bit of “hey, this particular piece of a particle accelerator is cool”, which I suppose it not a thing that you might buy in Best Buy, or about how a particular piece of military technology that, I don’t know, probably cost as much as free college for a million people, is a complete mess for what appear to be armchair obvious reasons.
Although I suppose every now and then one of those things that catches my attention is something like “you’d never believe how this commodity smartphone component is used by CERN and the Large Hadron Collider!”
All of which is to remind you that you may have subscribed to this newsletter because I’ve written about
my work in government technology through Code for America and at the State of California;
my time at Wieden+Kennedy, an ad agency, and… opinions about advertising;
what it’s like to have ADHD and chronic depression;
what it’s like to be a person, by which I mean someone who is scared of things and excited about things and worried about things at different times and, frankly, sometimes always at the same time in a very disorganized and unhelpful fashion
something like “ethics” or “responsibility to society” in relation to “technology”
opinions about whether software eating the world is dumb or not, i.e. a) should it, b) if it does, or is, then what does that imply about the excretory process
Oh, and I suppose I have also been told that this newsletter is very occasionally biting and sharp and satirical and also funny, but only by accident.
This part of the newsletter, which is numbered section 0 to affect a sort of “ha, I know how programmers think, because we count things from zero, which kind of makes sense but actually, we don’t have to do this and keeping do it is some sort of masochistic gatekeeping effort”, is called Context Setting, which means it’s a little bit at the beginning to set, uh, the scene. Like: what day it is. How the week has been. The general state of the world which, these days, I need not cover in any particular detail.
The next part of the newsletter is normally the bit where I talk about things that have caught my attention, like this:
I was on a workshop on responsible technology this week and had a realization that is probably trite and dumb for people for whom this is their job, so feel free to ignore me if I’m being patronizing.
Some baseline stuff:
Mobile apps don’t “do” contact tracing. They provide data and context and information that can aid in the job of contact tracing. Thinking that “apps” can fix or do contact tracing buys into some of the rhetoric technological all-or-nothing solutionism that worst case, dismisses the actual messiness of the real world for abstracts that end up being more harmful than good. An example here is that it’s easy to think that raw data about what a device has been close to provides the necessary context for the job to be done, i.e. your device being near another device doesn’t include any information about whether you were wearing masks, or the exact distance you were apart from each other.
This isn’t to say that thoughtful people aren’t aware of these issues.
But politicians might not be.
It strikes me that a lot of the conversation around the use of technological tools to aid in contact tracing — in particular smartphone applications on iOS and Android — have ignored  the reality that a democratically elected government has ceded practical control or the ability to influence direction over infrastructure that turns out to be vital in, say, issues of public health.
Or, more directly: you can see how it would be useful for a government to have the option to use data about peoples’ location and activity in a public health emergency. (It’s also a matter for a democratically elected government to be transparent about that process and to properly debate the civil liberty and public safety tradeoffs, whether or not that government is actually doing it. They should do it).
As a government representing your people, you may decide that it is valuable (but not the only input!) to have access to, say, individual-level data about personal movement and, say, to mandate the provision of that data. But, although the technical infrastructure exists to deliver that in theory, in practice it does not, because of what I think is quite a simple reason:
Governments have no influence, or have elected to have no increasingly little (sigh) influence and input into, the technical infrastructure of a society.
Oh sure, there are areas where government have decided they want to have input, and unsurprisingly, these are issues of national security or a think-of-the-children argument. So, in general, the debate there is: if we don’t have backdoor access to devices then we cannot stop child pornography or a terrorist attack. Therefore, we threaten to legislate for this system-level access and essentially force Apple and Google into complying as a condition for legally operating in our country.
Australia has done this. The U.S. government and the U.K. government have not, I think, gone that far, and my personal opinion is because of a bunch of realpolitik about pissing off Business Interests, whereas Australia doesn’t really have that much to lose if Apple decide to ignore them. Again, a political consideration.
Which is to say: fine, those were issues of National Security, and rather spurious ones, and the argument about child pornography is also treated by people in tech industry as “cheating” because it’s a well-worn think-of-the-children rhetorical device aimed at stirring up the political support of the populace and not frequently not something particularly well thought through.
Governments used to do this. They used to be involved in standard setting, and, in some respects, the U.S. government continues to do this with bodies like NIST and government also do it through quasi non-governmental bodies like ISO and so on. There are certainly areas in which government maintains the semblance of interest and participation, I mean: even stuff like clean air and environmental regulations and legislation, right?
But for some reason not in consumer technology, and part of me thinks this is a particular and strategic success by the Silicon Valley VC set who have advocated for bottom-up successful definition of standards without interference from top-down standards-setting bodies. Those bottom-up “set a standard by reflecting what’s most widely used” sure works… in some contexts.
Now we have a situation in which technological infrastructure which could be critical to public health (and yet, in a way, was not seen to be relevant to public health at all) has had next to no government involvement or even interest in that domain.
In a conversation with a friend (hello Rumman!) I made the connection that this feels a bit like if the U.S. government had brought on, say, Lockheed as a contractor for the Manhattan Project and also let Lockheed have a few nuclear weapons, as a treat. How do you negotiate with someone who has practical control over such deal-breaking critical infrastructure?
In practice, you legislate it, and then, well, it turns out you need to make apparently a hard decision about what sort of role government has in society and whether it’s able to, er, coerce freedom-loving laissez-faire businesses into doing what you want.
As I’m typing/thinking about this, I think the distinction I’m making is legislation and government influence over specific critical infrastructure: the specification of APIs on mobile devices. I realize this is very, very specific (and sometimes that’s a hallmark of bad legislation). But consider the bind that governments have willingly placed themselves in. Because the Apple and Google platforms are locked down, because they’re also predicated on monopsonies, governments have negotiated themselves out of influence, other than a nuclear option, of the ability to run software on mobile devices. The irony of what Cory Doctorow might think of this is, in my mind, fairly stunning.
Yes, there’s legislation around domain-specific issues. In the US, an example would be HIPAA, about health information privacy and portability. This, again, is different and at a different level: if a government wanted to come in and, I don’t know, shut down or mandate changes to electricity distribution, my uninformed and naive understanding is that there’s probably a legislative basis to do so. I mean, there’s public utility regulators for starters.
If COVID-19 doesn’t illustrate the need for regulation of certain aspects of widespread technology platforms at the very least in the domain of public health, then I don’t know what help we have of an informed and cooperative policy around technology and society in the near to mid-term future.
tl;dr: governments were all excited about the information age and actually did not do anything about it and now are being left behind because they’ve ceded ground to commercial development. This is because neoliberalism is bad.
OK, that… was a lot. Here’s some shorter things that caught my attention:
I am a sucker for cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology, so here’s a few super interesting papers about how our brains hallucinate a 3D world with weight based on the rough sketch of that world on essentially the 2D plane of our retina: we don’t just estimate the surface of objects using shading, texture and perspective, we also infer the internal structure of objects based on a sort of analogy to inverse kinematics: Our findings suggest the brain parses shapes’ features according to their physical causes, potentially allowing us to separate a single continuous surface into multiple superimposed depth layers. Click through, it’s an open access paper so you can see the diagrams.
Illusions that make it look like an area is bright in relation to other areas in an image actually result in a reduction of your pupil, i.e. a physiological change in relation to a visual illusion (click through, there’s pictures!)
A great thread explaining how a paper used immersive VR to investigate the size-weight illusion (ie. when you have objects that are the same weight, smaller objects are perceived to weigh more than larger objects)
The Komp is a one-button, not-even-a-smartphone-or-tablet computer with a closed social network for isolated individuals and design students should all be made to study it. Take that, Portal, Amazon Echo Show,e tc.
A great thread from Dan Hill (and others) on how COVID-19 has been a forcing function that’s let us discover a lot of information age work doesn’t actually have to be done with everyone in the same place and there’s no going back, and in particular, referencing the COO of an outdoor live events broadcasting company talking about remote work, if you really needed to destroy the illusion.
I’m increasingly nervous about the ethics of training AI by using and generating a corpus of data with unclear intellectual property licensing. In particular, where that intellectual property is from those at the weak end of the IP power asymmetry. LinkedIn might sue you for scraping data (whether or not this should happen in the first place), but if you’re scraping, say, 50,000 furry illustrations from a community website and they’re not under CC licensing and you don’t appear to give a shit, then… fuck you?
This is a wonderful art project that I think helps people understand the effects of auditory processing difficulties
I am a sucker for lifting bodies, so a lifting body drone is like targeted content to me. Also, I am silly, so when I think lifting body, I also think of that scene from Dirty Dancing.
Here’s a longer one:
I wrote about how we’re in like week 3-4 of broadcast TV figuring out how to show many participants in a piece of video (you know, all those bits that have the checkerboard / celebrity squares layout of multiple participants in a video conference) and we haven’t had any interesting experimentation yet, it’s all zooming in/out of individual panels, or, I don’t know, Ken Burns Effects over video.
Where’s all the inspiration from
frame-driven storytelling in comic books and graphic novels
2003’s Ang Lee adaptation of the Hulk
compositing into virtual sets (although I think Have I Got News For You has done in this in the UK and it was… bad?)
virtual conference rooms like in Demolition Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier and more
Fortnite and so on
Actually, one of the best examples is basically the acceptance of videogames leading to stuff like talk shows happening in Animal Crossing. Machinima’s time has come! (Also, the usage of Unreal Engine is basically Machinima, right?)
One reason I can imagine why this is happening is because all the traditional broadcasters are used to doing work at… work, whereas all the YouTubers have grown up with doing all of this with kit at home. Cloud editing and post isn’t really a thing yet (but, I guess, invest in the companies who are doing it because it totally is going to be a thing now).
Okay, so: my work with the State of California for the last 5 years doing product strategy to move from a waterfall, spec-heavy half billion dollar IT project to an iterative, user-centered one (a new Child Welfare IT system) was surprise terminated early this last Tuesday [tweet] because of COVID-19 budget cuts.
I am going to do something which is personally quite difficult for me, and not just because I’m British, which is to directly ask for your help in looking for a new contract or job. You know how to email me!
Here’s some stuff that might be relevant.
I’m really good at doing the hard work with managers and executive leaders to get to clear goals. I make it look incredibly easy to persuade and explain why clear goals are important. I consistently get great feedback on how well I communicate in documents and presentations and help people understand and make decisions about complicated problems.
I’m also really good at breaking down an organization’s silos and getting everyone excited about understanding and meeting user needs, while also making sure business and stakeholder needs are met. Or, more likely, in the case of business and stakeholder needs, that they’re made clear and, bluntly, make more sense. And then I put it all together in something that everyone can understand and get behind, from execs down to program/product managers and delivery teams. I smash silos and make friends. And I don’t do this in the abstract, I do it for real things. I also explain why the term “stakeholder” is frequently problematic and then people believe and agree with me, and change their behavior.
I’ve done this kind of work in large organizations and bureaucracies, like my work with the State of California, which is now a Harvard Kennedy School case study…
… and brought this kind of thinking (which isn’t just digital!) to clients and agencies in my work at Wieden+Kennedy. I brought user-centered, product and service design and game mechanics to creative work as a Creative Director for clients like Nike, Coca-Cola, Sony and Facebook. (Yes, even Facebook).
I’ve done this in videogames, where I co-founded a studio with my brother (which later went on to develop Zombies, Run!) and we won a bunch of frankly humbling awards for internet-native storytelling. And because my videogames work and collaboration with television and publishing, I’m a full voting member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
I’ve done this for non-profits, as Editorial Director and Summit co-chair at Code for America, running content strategy, writing RFP reviews and putting together programming that’s defined a brand new space in user-centered, delivery-driven government
I’ve been a jury member for the IXDA Awards and a juror/mentor for their Student Charette (which I loved doing)
I write, like about ECGs in smartwatches in last year’s MIT Tech Review on breakthrough technologies, guest edited by Bill Gates, and about topics like responsible tech and the soul of the internet to bring out the best in all of us, for all of us. That work led to a collaboration with Creative Commons on a foundation proposal for changing the direction of technology so it works for all of society, not just for some.
So, I’m looking for work, whether contract or full-time. I’m based in Portland, Oregon, but am open to relocating (not like that’s really happening right now, right?)
I love talking to everyone, so if you have anything in these areas, even if you likely have a hiring freeze, please get in touch:
roles like: senior product strategy and product management
games, especially massive-scale, internet native games, like Google Stadia (but not traditional AAA! Something more interesting than that!) and location-based games like Niantic’s Pokemon Go. I used to make alternate reality games, which given our current situation, combined with escape rooms and immersive theater, I have so many pitches for and this time, they actually come with revenue models.
product/strategy/creative roles in organizations like Apple, like for Apple Health and Watch or Arcade
public interest and government technology
And yes, I know that’s a wide bucket. But if you know me, then I think you know how much and what I can bring to those areas, because those are ones I really, really care about.
Okay. That was long and, frankly, a bit uncomfortable but I think worth doing and ultimately pretty healthy.
How are you doing? I miss you all.