Episode Forty Five – Station Ident; Snow Crashing 2; Computers, AMIRITE?; A Book on your Face

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m at an altitude of thirty six thousand feet travelling at five hundred and sixty one miles per hour, with a head wind of nine miles per hour. I’m at 171 degrees 2 minutes 53 seconds south, 13 degrees, 12 minutes, 54 seconds south on tail number 7102. I am 1,879 miles from my destination. I am in a mundane technological marvel; experiencing the plainness of commercial air travel in a Boeing 777-200. I am about eight hours and three quarter hours of travel time from my final destination of Perth.

A track from Music Together: Flutes has just come on (Shake Your Simmons Down) and I’m a bit teary eyed because I can see in my head how my son jiggles and dances around to it whenever it comes on over Airplay.

1.0 Snow Crashing 2

Okay, so the last installment of Snow Crashing turned out to be pretty fun to write, so here’s some more.

The Street and The Metaverse are probably the most stupendously (perhaps temporarily) wrong things for Stephenson to have gotten. It may well be that right now our grasp for VR has just caught up with the reach we hold in our imaginations with renewed interested in VR from companies like Valve and Oculus, but the vision portrayed in Snow Crash is so of the era that it’s been rightly seminal.

What he got right, kind of: like the web, Stephenson hopes that the protocol is open and hammered out by a working group, but the reality we’re in is that something like the Street these days wouldn’t have its protocol hammered out by just the one working group – that’d be too easy. We’d have the W3C weighing in, various HTML working groups, plus Khronos weighing in with whatever was happening with WebGL these days. Because the best way to implement VR would be in some ungodly combination of WebGL, HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

I can’t work out whether Stephenson is being smart with the Street and the Metaverse or if he missed a fundamental point about networks and computing infrastructure which is that scarcity isn’t really a problem. There’s only one Street, and the equivalent scarcity is in replicated physical proximity to the Street, whereas in our world it’s having a memorable dot com domain. Or, you know, that attention is scarce and typically congregates. The dumb thing that everyone knows and really should know better by now is that simulated physicality scales only as well (if not worse) as real physicality: ie. not very well (thanks for the reminder, Kim Pallister). Now, to be working at a company directly figuring out how to mass scale VR and have it adopted as fast as mobile phones or tablets? Along with defining all-new UI affordances when we can barely figure out how to design multi-touch surfaces? That would be a job…

Of course, Snow Crash pre-dates the web and envisages a hyper-capitalist future where capitalism has sort-of failed and income inequality has made things bad, if not downright terrible, for a lot of people. So in the world of Snow Crash, you actually have to do the equivalent of apply for *planning permission* and get permits and bribe inspectors and observe zoning laws to build in the Metaverse. Not so in our world, where no one is really in charge of the internet, or the web. Sure, Stephenson allows for those applications to be made to the Global Media Protocol Group – the equivalent of having to apply to the W3C, I suppose, if you wanted to build a website, and another form to fill in if you wanted to use “HOMEPAGE / SCROLLING/ PARALLAX / LAZY LOADING” and then pay them – and those fees being held in trust for further development of the Metaverse.

And then there’s the bit where Stephenson breaks down the economics of the Street in ways that I think are completely alien to the VC and growth fueled universe that we live in right now. In the universe of Snow Crash, there’s a total human population of around six to ten billion people – matching up to what we have now. Of those, perhaps a billion have enough money to have a computer, and of those only a quarter of them bother to own one, and then a quarter of those have hardware powerful enough to render the Street. That’s a TAM of sixty million, plus, he says, but you get to add another sixty million who visit from public terminals. Only a hundred and twenty million total users! At any given time, he says, the Street is populated by double the population of New York City, giving a daily active user count of about 16 million which, by today’s standards, is a bit shit. EVEN if those 16 million are, as Stephenson exposits, the 1%.

I don’t know about you, but something tells me that the economics in Stephenson’s toy universe are a bit off. He never really goes into *why* the Street’s simulated physicality was such a big deal and my guess (acknowledging that this is fanwanking territory into the motivations of fictional characters in designing an ultimately global, yet fictional, social multimedia protocol) is simply that a bunch of geeks, just like Hiro, did it was cool and because, er, they read about it in Snow Crash.

Which again leads me to this: what sort of VR are we going to build, if the short hand of Gibson and Stephenson are what we have to hand? It’s clear that Stephenson fundamentally didn’t get that the *most* important thing about hypermedia was the links. Otherwise we wouldn’t have motorcycle chases in the metaverse (but for he wanted to write a particularly unfilmable pulp action screenplay). It’s all bits in the stream, so you apply a matrix transformation and suddenly what was here is over there. You don’t even have to click your heels three times.

It makes me think that Stephenson and Hiro are trying to point something out about humans actually *liking* scarcity.

2.0 Computers, AMIRITE?

Matt Jones made a quip that in the Top Gear of Quipping On Twitter About Things I’d make a good Jeremy Clarkson, and I’m not entirely sure whether to take that as a compliment or a slight. He declined to elucidate further, the cheeky sod.

Anyway, this bit is probably going to sound best written in an exasperated-at-current-technology Clarkson (but definitely not the tight jeans railing at political correctness and climate change Clarkson).

I’m in a lot of meetings where lots of people bring laptops to meetings and then fiddle around with cables and dongles and displays or projectors and Oh My God if presenting things on a big screen isn’t one of the most stupendously fucked up things ever that if you thought even Apple could get it right, you’d be so deadly wrong. I mean, you’re not doing the whole Windows era of Function-7 to turn on the external display and then maybe Fn-8 to turn off mirroring or was it turn on mirroring and oh look just give it to me I’ll do it.

Here are the things that happen when people plug in Mac laptops and try and present.

  • It doesn’t work
  • It doesn’t work because the screen isn’t on the right input
  • No-one can find the remote control to change the input
  • No-one knows, or wants to try to figure out what input the screen should be changed to
  • There’s some sort of Crestron thing on the table and jabbing at the “laptop” icon finally puts something on the screen
  • It’s the wrong screen because the laptop has extended its screen and the user wanted mirroring
  • It’s the wrong screen because the laptop has mirrored its screen and the user wanted extended
  • The user doesn’t know how to switch between mirroring or extension
  • Everyone waits while System Preferences loads up and we hunt for the “turn on/off mirroring” checkbox
  • The presentation is in Keynote, so that’s OK until they want to sort out presenter display which is either great if you’re using Old Keynote or a nightmare sent from the depths of hell to torment you if you’re using New Keynote, and doubly great if you remember the shift-X hotkey to swap the main and presenter display around
  • The presentation is a PDF which is marginally OK if you’re showing it in Preview and you know how to make Preview full screen which you can do a number of ways oh god why are there so many ways and you didn’t embed a video in a PDF did you because that won’t play so
  • The presentation is a PDF with an embedded video so you have to use Adobe Reader and you wonder what was it you did in that past life, were you Hitler or something, because now you have to make Adobe Reader go full screen and that means realistically you have to use mirroring which means you lose presenter display so good job you brought those hard copies and now you finally get to the embedded video and it a) doesn’t work, b) works but the framerate is stupendously low because god knows Adobe knows how to make not even high-performing software but software that just works for christ’s sake, c) the video works but then Reader quits when you get to the next slide because that’s great that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the presentation whatsoever, d) none of it works, none of it ever works, that’s why you also asked for the video files on their own so you can just use Quicktime
  • Oh god now you’re using Quicktime and pop-quiz hotshot, when you hit that full screen button, which display is it going to maximise on to? Bonus points if you’re using display mirroring at this point but hating yourself
  • But wait, someone just pointed out that none of those videos played back with sound and you plugged in the little sound thing to the little sound hole but this is because someone smart someone figured hey, if you’re plugged into an HDMI port on the display end let’s use HDMI audio and you forgot to option-click the little loudspeaker icon in the menubar and select whatever indecipherable string of supposedly Roman alphabet characters is the symbol for the audio input of the screen you’re using.
  • No, throwing the display over Apple TV is not an option are you insane?

Of course, Steve’s solution for this was to probably shout at people until it worked. Or never have to set this stuff up on his own in the first place. Also, he didn’t need presenter display because he practised this shit a million times, could do it in his sleep. Only you weak people need presenter display and your notes, you should cry yourselves to sleep.

It’s weird that it’s perfectly fine to pop-up a modal dialog when a USB mass-storage device is plugged in (what do you want to do? Open iPhoto? Aperture? Just show finder?) but not when something significantly more complicated like an HDMI cable is plugged in (Mirror? Extend? Reroute audio?).

It shouldn’t be this hard, and it makes me despair.

3.0 It’s like a book, on your face

Watching the internet peanut gallery (of which I am painfully aware I’m a part) is painfully addictive. I was reading the Hacker News comments on the Oculus Rift/Facebook story and then it was only a click away to Notch’s post about the future of virtual reality and how he didn’t want any part of a Facebook-funded push into VR.

So this is where Facebook has a branding problem. They might also have a behavioural problem, but let’s just focus on the former for starters. It is impossible to argue with the user number: even if they were off by fifteen percent, the daily and monthly active users of Facebook-the-product for both “desktop” and “mobile” are off the charts, incomparable to any other in that class of technology so far deployed.

And yet the common perception – at least (and remember to check your recency bias here) – is that they’re evil and in it for the money when, try as he might, Zuckerberg has tried to make clear that the *goal* of Facebook is to connect the world, and that advertising is the least-evil way of doing it. Isn’t it?

Ian Betteridge calls this a sort of tech-snobbery – that the internet commentariat can’t see or won’t acknowledge the value that “regular people” get out of Facebook. That despite what the elites on the coasts of America might say, the middle of America is quite happy posting cat pictures and re-posts of memes or participating in grooming, phatic communication in some way through the platform. And again, you can be sure that if Google (or even Microsoft!) had announced the acquisition the reaction would be different.

So no, it’s not really like a book, but on your face. In fact, like I said last episode, it’s got nothing to do with Facebook the product and everything to do with Zuckerberg, the vision. So I suspect that, because they’re smart people, Oculus Rift and their partners at the big thumb aren’t going to care much about what the peanut gallery thinks. Because they’ve got their vision thing going on, of variously a) finally bringing about the VR we’ve all been dreaming of, and b) connecting the world, and they’re just going to go ahead and implement it.

So the question is: what were all these other conflicting visions? One common one is that Oculus was annointed as the first great giant tech company to be born through the fire of crowdfunding. But Kickstarter was never about *ownership*, and they’ve been clear about that. Andy Baio retweeted the valid, I think, thought that a backer’s relationship to a Kickstarter is that of parent. You help bring them into the world, but they’re their own entity. You might kick and scream and wish that they didn’t go and do the weird things that they did, they might let you down, they might not make the choices you wish they would make, but in the end: your role is that of parent and to let them go. They can choose to listen to you or not, and you can choose to help birth another Kickstarter or not.

This goes as much for the Veronica Mars fulfillment kerfuffle of which I’m as guilty of for stoking the flames. As someone who paid $100 on a whim (which on another level kind of disgusts me) to back the project because I loved the first two series, it was good to know that I’d be getting a digital download. But when I found out that the download would be fulfilled via Ultraviolet, like many others, I flipped out into nerd rage because the customer experience and service wasn’t good enough.

Sometimes, people and entities make choices that you might not agree with. You might bite and kick and scream in one hundred and forty characters, but that was kind of the deal with Kickstarter. The line that demarcates what the project may or may not owe you may be blurry, but it does exist.

But all of this is new. Kickstarter isn’t a shop. It isn’t a funding agreement. It’s a new thing, and we’re all discovering the norms together.

I’m still in the air, so I’ll send this when I land. Hopefully I didn’t say anything racist before I got on the plane in LAX.
As ever, send me all your notes. I do like getting them, and I do respond to them. And if I don’t respond to them, they’re preying on my mind until I know the right thing to say. Also: I really like it when you introduce yourself.