Episode Ninety Eight: Engineering Serendipity; Genuinely Useful People Personalities; Hubris

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

First: hello new subscribers. There’s around thirty of you today, so if you manage to make it to the end of today’s episode, then you should also check out my archives at https://newsletter.danhon.com/archive/.

I’m in South Carolina for NOSTROMO BLACK which amongst other things means driving a Mustang around little roads at quite unreasonable speed and looking at giant CNC machines and various kinds of 3D printers and laser scanners. I fly back to Portland tomorrow, where there are things like reasonable weather and not ninety-five degree heat and eighty-odd-percent humidity. In that respect, Myrtle Beach is better than Washington, DC, where it’s ninety-five degree heat and ninety-five percent humidity.

The plane ride over on Sunday was also room to do some more thinking around SULACO BLUE, which I’m pretty excited about because I’ve found new ways in to getting it started, but also to start putting some structure into place for PROMETHEUS RED, for which I had a kickoff meeting last Friday.

1.0 Engineering Serendipity

Or: “The right thing, at the right time, for the right price.”

For the past few years, there’s been a bunch of talk of serendipity in the building of services and products. One of the earliest incarnations of this was the Explore page on Flickr – for which Yahoo! even has a patent[1] on an algorithm to determine the *interestingness* of a photograph.

It feels awfully high school to do the whole “let’s look up what serendipity means in a dictionary” thing, but this is what we mean something is serendipitous: a development of a fortuitous chain of events by happy coincidence.

It’s telling that serendipity was coined in a fairy tale[2] – one where an author is in charge of narrative events. What I think we do when we encounter serendipity in real life is apply it as a sort of post-processing filter: we’re causal beings that experience life in terms of narrative, so we find the happy coincidence, or the beneficial outcome and then work backwards to construct a reason for it occurring. And when one isn’t apparent, or when we’re unable to assess the probability or the probability that we assess is judged to be quite low, then we label the sequence of events as something serendipitous.

When we talk about engineering serendipity, we’re second guessing: inferring in some way the sorts of things that we’re interested in, that will provide us with pleasure or that “happy or beneficial way” and deciding to surface those things. Serendipity prompts, as it were. This strikes me as an inherently fuzzy thing (such reckon, of course, that I’m entirely happen to be proven depressingly wrong). So instead imagine something like this: there’s a set of things in my head, the contents of which can be (to a greater or lesser degree) duplicated externally through inference via my behaviour or explicitly, because I state: I like these things. We can simplify this by removing any sort of time component: at all times, I would be happy if any of these things happened.

Does it make any difference if these things are then placed in front of me by something with agency? Does it matter if I tell some sort of system: I want to increase the amount of things that I perceive as happening serendipitously in my life?

This is essentially what I’m doing with the promise of an invisible application like Swarm: I like to see my friends. I would like to know when my friends are nearby. If my friends are nearby, let me know, so I can spend time with them.

That feels like a kind of high-level serendipity. No movements have strictly been engineered by accident, everything’s been explicitly asked for.

The other kind of serendipity, though, is the ones are invisible apps don’t do yet. Part of the question, apart from whether they should or not, is whether you’d be able to notice. If there were something nudging you, would you be able to tell? Would you want to know about it afterwards?

You could imagine a sort of integration with Google Maps, then: an *interestingness* option for route calculation. I want to get from point A to point B, and here’s a selection of routes: the fatest route, the shortest route and another one: the most interesting one.

Because part of the joy of serendipity is the hiding of information and the belief that a low-probability series of events occurred, regardless of their actual probability. You might think it was a happy coincidence that you bumped into Hannah at the cafe and then Arthur around the corner, who both happen to be working on the same thing, but it turns out that Hannah and Arthur both follow a routine that brings them to the cafe, or on a walk, at roughly the same time each week. It was bound to happen.

What’s different is the story that you tell yourself. Do you want interesting stories to tell?

In this way, asking for serendipity in terms of a “most interesting route” from Google is giving up a bit of agency, a bit of control. I don’t know *exactly* why this route’s been chosen: it might be because the routing engine knows that I probably haven’t seen Sarah in a while, and there’s a high chance I’ll bump into her. It might be because I don’t know about a book tour that one of my favourite authors is doing in town tomorrow night, and that I might hear about it on the way.

I don’t know any of those things. All I know is that the route will deliver something interesting. And the great thing about human brains being pattern matching machines, looking for stories in everything, is that if something *did* happen that wasn’t anticipated, then I’d chalk that success up to the machine as well.

At that point, *real* serendipity, the non-engineered kind becomes the glitch in the algorithm. When you see something you weren’t supposed to. When something happens that was unplanned – by you, by anything.

I’d say a challenge would be: how spooky could you engineer someone’s life? How much you would you need to know about them and how many nudges would you be able to insert into their daily routine for them to have a palpable feel that something were different? And could you do so algorithmically? In a productised fashion?

I wonder what kind of access you would need. I wonder how privileged it would need to be. Is there some suite of genie rights and permissions that you could give to a Simmons (not a Donna, not a [female named assistant] from your phone that would be good enough? We’d be talking about: contacts, major and minor social network read history plus graph data, purchase history, geolocation and notable places. At what point do we bundle that type of information together so that services and applications can ask for it in one go? And what sort of name would we give that bundle?

I started this off writing about serendipity, and that was a route in to looking at how our lives are mediated through the three-to-five inch screens we have with us. I used to joke at work that I would be endlessly shuttled by my assistant and project managers from meeting to meeting, that they would be waiting for you outside the bathroom to move you on to the next task, papers held in hand for you to examine or sign or walk-and-talk with you before the next review. It would get to the point where I could do national travel and not necessarily know *where* I was going, because I’d trusted someone else to figure it all out for me. I would trust in the instructions and that following them would lead to the accomplishment of my tasks.

Of course, this would work great for my professional life. I would get a lot done.

But now I have a spreadsheet full of todo items. And it’s not even really full of todo items, it’s full of did-this-last, doing-this-next and dates.

So what strikes me is that I would love a to-do list that told me what to do and when. I mean, sure, I’d set priorities. But I kind of liked being shuffled around. Decisions had been made and I had to make decisions during the time allotted. And sure, I’d be able to say: this decision needs more time, and then the diary would reconfigure itself, be a shifting morass of priorities and decision-making spaces.

If you’re looking for the answer to the question: what does a creative director do all day, the answer is: directs things. If you want to know what that means in a slightly less facetious way, it meant making decision after decision after decision.

Sitting in a meeting: is this brief ready or not? What would make it ready?

In another meeting: is this idea ready or not? What would make it ready?

In yet another meeting: is the plan for this presentation ready or not? What would make it ready?

There wasn’t much time for reflection, a lot of the time, because of the volume of the work to be done. Occasionally, there would be things like:

Sitting in a meeting: because the work is ready, so: help present it.

Also, to be brutally honest, there were also things like:

Having a long lunch: because clients are here: you should talk to them

What it meant though, was that there was always a succinct answer to the question “what am I doing right now?”.

My Outlook calendar was a finely-tuned Jenga puzzle work of art.

How would you go about engineering that kind of workflow? Like everyone else, I’ve got at least two copies of Allen’s Getting Things Done. But hey, didn’t we invent computers for this sort of thing?

Where’s my to-do list that requires me to break tasks down into subtasks, organises my projects for me but also *has access to my calendar* and inserts those tasks? Because one way of answering the question “what am I doing right now?” is to take a look at that task list and say: looking at the task list. The task list may well have been sorted and prioritised. And you could say that it’s my responsibility, as a human being with executive control and time-management skills – both features that apparently come as standard in modern adult h. sap – to work out what I want to do and when.

But it’s nice not having to decide sometimes. Because we also know that deciding things takes up non-renewable mental energy. It engages that System 2 of Daniel Kahneman’s and that requires *effort* and hey, Kahneman said that evolution designed me to be cognitively lazy and look for the easy way out, so I’m doing that.

I want a todo app that has access to my calendar and says: hey, you could be doing this right now. And then it would be done. And just fills up as much time as I want it to. That’s not a reminder. It’s a: this is what you’re doing now.

In a way, it’s removing agency (heh). But I like to get things done.

[1] http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=%2220060242139%22.PGNR.&OS=DN/20060242139&RS=DN/20060242139

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip

2.0 Genuinely Useful People Personalities

One of my friends I follow on Twitter[1] called out the intensifying of some sort of local Douglas Adams field. References to the tall one had been cropping up more frequently, lately, and they wondered, rightly, was this sort of thing alienating to younger people, who hadn’t grown up with him? Who hadn’t been around when he was alive, or hadn’t really been a fan when he had died?

I said: I’d keep referring to Adams until I died. Not so much because of his ideas – but because of his enthusiasm and passion for them, and because of that enthusiasm and passion, he was a great explainer. One who would take a woolly concept that might not have been instantiated in the world yet, which presence might just be a ghostly outline of a possible future, and then, like a showman or an entertainer, almost will it into being through sheer force of exuberance. What I like about Adams was that he was an unabashed optimist, and an infectious one at that.

I wish there were more people like him, but I think that’s why he had a singularly disproportionate effect upon people. He was unique. And his knack for doing both things like Hyperland, where he got the platform to be curious in front of millions of people, and things like his insight into technology invented after you turn thirty (against the natural order of things, wrong, etc.) illustrated his ability to inspire, educate and simplify (though in the latter case, perhaps overly so).

He was, in short, a passionate communicator who bridged the arts and the sciences. Like I said, I wish there were more people like him, and I think it’s a tragedy that we enforce an artificial divide between the liberal arts and the sciences. The two play off each other. Perhaps the cult of Jobs will, if anything, inspire a new generation of parents that perhaps there’s something to be said for encouraging kids who sit in the middle, and don’t feel comfortable completely in either camp. I know I don’t, and it’s taken a long time (and is an ongoing process) for me to comfortable with sitting in between the two.

That said: do you know any people like Adams? I mean, not freakishly tall and afraid of deadlines, but instead people who are curious about the world and can spread that curiosity with infectious verve and are genuinely *excited and optimistic* about our future, and not instead preoccupied with the grimdark.

[1] https://twitter.com/finalbullet/status/475288420592656384

3.0 Hubris


I finally deleted Secret from my phone the other day. I’d been checking it less and less and it never really graduated into a habit. I had a peak usage where I was kind of obsessively checking it and making up stuff and getting comments and then there was the whole thing with the leak about Nike shutting down its Fuelband hardware engineering team that sucked me in a bit.

But today, looks like the Secret team finally decided to double down on – in my humble opinion – showing that they’re stupendously optimistic about the nature of human beings despite a whole bunch of evidence to the contrary with the launch of Secret Dens[1].

(If, like me, you heard “Secret dens” and you thought: what does Secret have to do with the founder of Dodgeball and Foursquare? then you should take a drink and think very carefully about your life)

So what is Secret Dens? It’s basically Secret for different networks: like your workplace. Because having an anonymous-ish gossip network has always worked out really well when large groups of human beings have been involved.

But don’t worry! Everything will be fine! How do we know? Because Valley:

“Our invite-only pilot of Dens follows an experiment at Secret HQ, where the 16 of us can share anything and everything we want — just with our team. After enjoying our inside jokes, updates and secrets in our Den over the last month, we’re confident that any company will love having one of its own.”


Admittedly, it’s invite-only. So you know, you kind of have to apply for it, which kind of makes sense because hey, you didn’t want to *accidentally* deploy a secret gossip network to your organisation, did you? And presumably they want to make sure that the individuals in charge of said organisation know that a secret gossip network has just been deployed to their organisation.

Look, I know it’s exciting to be in a startup and thinking that you’re doing something that’s going to disrupt the world. I get it. Well done, lots of golf claps all around, perhaps you can get daddy a membership to the country club if you go public.

But I feel like I know how this went down. People got excited about phrases like “radical transparency” and “disrupting the organisation”. Someone probably read Ed Catmull’s new book and said that Secret was the “killer app for candor” and that it would “unlock more efficient, organic transfers of information and knowledge” leading to “more efficient, happier employees”.

For which: bullshit. We know how this goes down. We know what people are like.

I’m going to go and tie this a bit to some of the bad implementations of Holocracy, or the accusations of the kind of culture that Github is alleged to have. The whole startup culture of “we don’t need no management!”, which is perfectly fine when you’re, say, sixteen people and you all more-or-less know each other and there are a lot of implied social conventions that you’re all okay with until someone from outside the group joins and they, oh, I don’t know, reasonable expectations and then it turns out that your implied social conventions weren’t as well-tuned as you thought and then: drama!

There are a whole bunch of eminently reasonably ethnographers, anthropologists, historians, community managers and so on who would be able to look at Dens and say, pretty quickly, I reckon: this isn’t going to end well.

But I guess the promise of the Californian Ideology is this time, things can be different, and that if you deploy the right code in the right place, you really can change the world. So why not try?

And so I end today’s episode with grumpy Dan: I predict bad things and the quiet closure of Secret Dens.

[1] https://medium.com/secret-den/introducing-secret-dens-633647edaf4

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