A reminder! This is my newsletter, Things That Have Caught My Attention, which is mainly about tech, policy, government, armchair thoughts about product and services, the occasional personal story to give the whole thing more context and some gravitas. Thank you for subscribing!
It’s been a long time since I last wrote and, well, all I need to do really is to point you to this most recent tweet in a thread of mine and encourage you to scroll up/read backwards.
On with the show, etc.
I wrote before (ha, in April/May, probably) about how remote teaching at the time offered new possibilities, some good, and some not so good. Obviously things have changed in *gestures at everything* current times, especially in the U.S. with the completely abysmal state of online/remote school infrastructure in public schools, but here’s something really reassuring about what Zoom class chat does differently that’s helpful to students. Namely: the out-of-band text chat is also an opportunity for students to praise and encourage each other in a way that isn’t normally possible in physical classrooms, without software or other infrastructure.
I love the film Sneakers and you should too, otherwise we can’t be friends. (It is a magnificent heist movie about technology and hacking). Here is how someone found the button Whistler, who’s blind, uses to figure out where Bishop’s was kidnapped to, by recreating the sounds Bishop heard from the trunk of the car.
I saw this tweet from mo mcbirney about how “when teens have big parties they make a new insta account ~for the party~ and people have to request to follow it, and an approval means you can come to the party??? and you have to show your insta to get into the party (there is security)” which feels like a super interesting *cough* native *cough* way to do event ticketing and identity authentication/management.
There is something about exploring digital places (keyword: liminal) that are not intended to be accessed and doggedly pursuing them just for the curiosity, fun and challenge of it, so this Polygon story about spending 13 years getting into a Halo 3 skybox (a section of a map where some narrative happens with a certain kind of environmental texturing) was *chef’s kiss*.
So. Blaseball is an online, browser-based game that is a bit about Baseball, but not really, and it’s super interesting because it is as much a live performance game with rules encoded and programmed by its designers as it is one that listens to its players and audience (of which the players and audience are different, and not necessarily the same people!) and whose weekly evolution has a clear creative point of view and is also reactive and honestly, oh my gosh. So you should read Cat Manning’s primer on Blaseball from their newsletter The Garden of Forking Narratives. One thing about Blaseball (I could go on) is that so much of its strength comes out in its writing and the gaps and how the game has been designed explicitly with different player places and degrees of freedom.
A couple of data&society reports that caught my eye recently: first, on Repairing Innovation by Madeleine Clare Elish and Elizabeth Anne Watkins, which emphasizes the sociotechnical lens of humans as part of a technical system, which hopefully I am not too glibly and inaccurately summarizing as: when innovation happens, things break (sometimes by moving fast and on purpose), and then there is a long system required of mopping up and fixing of social structures that were broken in the process of innovation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a necessary consequence of innovation, i.e. “things changing”. The report in particular talks about how the introduction and integration of an AI system “[created] breakages in social structures that must be repaired in order for the technology to work as intended”. Again, super glibly: this is what you get when at a very high level, technologists see technology as separate from people.
The second bit from data&society is Good Intentions, Bad Inventions: The Four Myths of Healthy Tech by Amanda Lenhart and Kellie Owens which is in effect a response to the recent documentary (sigh), The Social Dilemma. The report is in a PDF, which is a bit irritating, but I highly recommend reading it. It’s a clear outline of the problems of the idea that we don’t have agency in how we use technology (biological determinism) and of tech solutionism (let’s just tech our way out of this).
AND look, those reports were all written and produced by women. Who have historically (and still are) been sidelined in technology and the world of software, never mind in how social sciences work collaboratively and productively with technology.
Through work, Tom Loosemore’s definition of big-D “Digital” came up again as “Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations” to which I needed to add: you need to have a talk about and understanding of what “expectations” are, and in what whey they are “raised”, otherwise you know you’re applying culture, practices, processes and technologies… but without understanding the goal in your particular context.
Good blog post from Matt Knight that helped my thinking about the term “Assisted Digital” in service design and government service design, and why we should stop talking about the term and using it. I would expect that some people might have a different opinion in our COVID physical distancing era, but it still rings true to me. I don’t think assuming or designing for digital-first makes sense anymore (although I do see it useful in the early stages of government transformation as a politically expedient catalyst to get things going), in the same way that the point is the service and the outcome, and to use all the methods appropriate or available to help users achieve their goal.
There’s this article about worries about “data sprawl” now that people with office jobs are working from home and it’s the usual concerns about data being in places it shouldn’t be, normally because the existing systems are incredibly irritating, don’t meet user needs, and users frequently have to find workarounds. What’s especially galling about the article, though, is that a “top issue” for companies is “employees using personal devices for work”, and that IT executives were worrying that “their employees are not following the policies for keeping their data secure.” Policies like these are, I think, a last ditch attempt against successful and effective systems and services. Your policy is you wagging a finger and saying, yeah, you weren’t supposed to do that, and it wasn’t my fault that I made the right thing easy for you to do. And to that end, if you’re going to require employees to work remotely or on mobile give them the equipment to do so. If you want me on Teams or Slack or whatever, wherever, then you pay for a device and the network access for that device. I’m not putting an MDM on my personal device just so you can save money and because you’re worried about your corporate dating mixing with my personal data.
VSCode Debug Visualizer is an extension to Visual Studio Code that lets you see data structures right there in your editor which, I’m sorry, why isn’t this standard? I mean, this isn’t some of the crazy Bret Victor shit, this is just “if I have an array, can I… see it?” I’d expect something like this to be in Swift Playgrounds soonish. What I don’t understand is that this seems like a fairly elementary and (somewhat) trivially implementable concept, but that my gut instinct is that it doesn’t exist because REAL PROGRAMMING isn’t like that. The counterpoint, though, is if you look at the screenshot/video on the plugin’s website, it in fact looks like COOL FUTURE PROGRAMMING so why wouldn’t REAL DEVELOPERS want to use something like that? (Sure, fine, it’s easy mode, but, you know… turn it off? It’s not like you’re using a mouse).
Just putting a note here, again, that I’m not sure Substack offers enough value to people with the cut it’s taking. They’ve made getting-paid-for-writing easier, but other software stacks are going to make it easier still. Part of what they’re investing their money in is “paying people with large audiences to use Substack to write” and… am I being dumb, or do I not entirely understand that strategy? It’s paying for exclusive content, which sure, that’s just like every other content platform play and is great increasing the aggregate number of substack users up. But I don’t care about the aggregate number of substack users/subscribers. I care (or not, to be honest) about the number of substack subscribers *I* have. And the number of subscribers I get from “within the Substack ecosystem” (sorry) is… negligble? Like, less than negligble? Substack isn’t doing anything (yet) for discovery or for helping me grow my audience, should I wish to do so, other than some advice that I should give away the really good content because that’s a great advert for people to pay for the slightly less good but more regular content? In other words, I am still about to pull the trigger to move to Ghost.
Well, apparently it’s been about two months since I wrote and in that time the air outside and inside the house was (literally?) apocalyptic and maybe by the time you receive this the cold civil war in the U.S. will have gone hot.
So I’m doing just fine thanks. How are you?