Episode One Hundred and Eighteen: The Material (5) – What It Wants; Transmedia Is Dead!

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Robin Sloan would be proud – this is the first time I’ve written one of these from inside a library. The wi-fi is good and I’m only slightly killing myself by sitting down instead of building a standing desk. There’s more NOSTROMO BLACK this week as well as whole bunch of other stuff going on post-hey-I-don’t-have-a-job, but the upshot of it all is that I’m spending more time with my son and working out what I *want* to do rather than what I *can* do.

The latter has been an interesting distinction that I only just recently noticed. I like to take things and then turn them over and see what I can do with them, to see the possibilities in them. So I can go have meetings with people, see an opportunity and say, hm: I could do *this* with that. There are all the things – this is the possibility space and here are the interesting peaks and troughs and valleys and look, we could go over there and see what’s on top of, or behind that hill. But that’s just mapping out the space. There’s no intentionality there, that’s just, I don’t know, possibility cartography. Exploring. There’s no I *want* to do that. And it feels like for a while I was confusing what I wanted with what I could do: that the mere possibility was interesting, and exploring the possibility in and of itself was interesting.

In other words: the difference between what some work could enable me do, and whether the work enabled me to do what I *wanted* to do. Those two sets don’t necessarily coincide.

Listening to: an iTunes playlist called “It’s Time For A Montage”.

1.0 The Material (5) – What It Wants

This is me, not writing (directly, at least) about Go Pro cameras and Google Glass. This is me writing about the new material that things are made of, and what they want. I have a dirty secret to admit – I never got through Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants[1, 2] in full, but part of what’s vaguely offensive about his thesis is that by removing human agency from technology and suggesting some sort of higher-order driving force (the Technium) that just means that technology, like evolution, is some sort of organizing principle. To which: poppycock (which is just a fun word I don’t get to use that often.)

Look, let’s just agree that technology is instantiated through artifacts and those artifacts are created by someone or something that reflect their values. There might be values inherent *to* technology, but I’d argue that (for the moment, at any rate), they’re far overwhelmed by the specific purpose that the technological artifact’s inventor or creator imbues into the artifact itself. Or, rather, borrowing Catmull’s recent words: ideas don’t just exist in the ether. They are plucked and massaged, given shape, form and reason to be and then they need to compete for users and attention.

So when we think about what technology wants, it makes sense to think of the agency involved. *Who* is the technology for? Sure, there’s a spectrum, but again there’s a difference between something *for me* and something *for something else*. And there’s also a difference in terms of *how* a thing works. I had some friends talking about Go Pro cameras and Google Glass and whilst I don’t want to step on their toes while they’re thinking away, the thing that I do want to recognise is the difference between the former and the latter in terms of smarts and the purpose of an object.

There’s a clearness in terms of single-use dumb objects in that they’re, well, dumb. You don’t need to worry about them doing anything behind your back. You don’t need to worry about their terms of service necessarily changing, because their substrate is under your physical control. They’re not network connected and, yes, you have to do a lot more work. But one suspects a sort of Battlestar Galactica (2004 reboot) folk feeling not that networked technology gave rise to AI that turned against us and wanted to kill us all, but that you just didn’t *know* what was going on with all of that networked technology. In other words, it all comes down to trust again. There’s a functioning set which feels a bit like me-and-device, versus me-and-device-and-cloud. The latter is intentionally abstracted away – someone noted on Twitter the other day that “the algorithm” is becoming an excuse, not just a description, exactly the “computer says no” removal of agency that is a sort of jobsworth shrug. The “well, the algorithm says it, so it must be true” folk story of people blindly following GPS directions because hey, it turns out that we quite like following directions because living and making decisions is all so complicated and it would be all better if we could just let someone – or something – else make them for a bit.

So the issue of smart devices in interpersonal relationships is rather like the situation Princess Diana found herself in with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”[3]. Parker-Bowles had her own agency and her own motivations and the three-body problem[4] is a hard one to solve with humans, never mind multinational corporations that make videos explaining how something you can’t see works, like email. How do you discern intention with a corporate body? How do you discern that intention when it’s been instantiated into a physical+software device, embedded in an ecosystem, wrapped in tens or even hundreds of pages of terms of service that no-one has read, apart from the lawyers and maybe the product managers responsible for it? And those terms of service that govern – in the loosest possible way, of course, what that physical+software ecosystem device is supposed to do are held up with the legal equivalent of holding your fingers crossed behind your back, so you can change your mind at any time.

In a reasonable world, what rules of thumb are you supposed to use to assess whether or not you *trust* such a device or ecosystem? Certainly you no longer get the choice because the devices are in the world and acting, consuming, digitising – if not on your behalf, then upon someone else’s.

I think this is why dumb things feel more trustable, the lines more clearly drawn, the network tendrils retracted or even intentionally hobbled. You won’t understand this, the stumpy connections seem to say, so we’re not going to extend them. We don’t trust ourselves, either. We haven’t shown ourselves to be trusted. So this thing is dumb, and the only way the information on it can get from *here* to *there* is the equivalent of the scene in the military thriller where two uniformed officers remove keys from chains around their necks, unlock a lockbox, pull out two pieces of one-time code encased in snap-open plastic, enter the codes, get *new* keys, flip up lock protectors, insert locks and, on my mark, turn those keys and hey – you’ve uploaded your video to YouTube and set it free. And then the algorithms go to town, devouring it, mining it for meaning, cross-referencing, feasting upon it and producing connections and inferences and pre-roll ads. But at least you didn’t upload it by *mistake*.

[1] Review: What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010)

[2] What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly

[3] BBC1 Panorama interview with the Princess of Wales, broadcast in November 1995

[4] Three-Body Problem

2.0 Transmedia Is Dead!

So TechStars and Disney have been running an accelerator[1] to “turn today’s technology innovator’s  dreams for new media and entertainment experiences into reality.” I have no-one to blame but myself for looking at the list of announced participants, not least of which because Dylan Boyd, MD of TechStars kindly pointed me in the direction of the application process (and, I think, it has also featured in this newsletter before).

It’s striking, from my point of view, the *kinds* of companies that have been accepted into the accelerator. On the one hand, there’s the “business business business, numbers!” side of things:

– Buzzstarter is “the world’s first scalable programmatic content marketing platform”,

– Sidelines “fixes the problem of substandard online discussions and comments by sourcing smart, high-quality discussions from its curated team of over 400 experts, and distributing these discussions to publishers based on relevance”,

– Jogg “simplifies the act of acquiring video from anyone. Users can gather, edit and share much more than just video from their own device”),

– Cogo “provides video monetization solutions for content creators”

On the second hand, there’s the physical toy type things:

– Sphero, a “connected play company, which fuses digital and physical play by creating robots that you control with a smart device”

– Snowshoe “makes simple, magical pieces of plastic that interact with touch screens to create the perfect bridge between physical items and digital content”

– Ubooly is “a learning toy that talks and listens to kids. Ubooly can be customized to know your child’s name, teach lessons, and much more”

Then there’s the “useful things/teaching things”:

– ChoreMonster, “a web and mobile platform that makes chores fun for kids and turns parents into superheroes”,

– Codarica “serves as children’s first interaction into the world of code with help from characters Cody Coder and Holly Hacker”,

– Twigtale, which “provides parents with personalized, high-quality, accessible expert advice for every major transition a child undergoes.”

and, uh, apps:

– TYFFON “is an entertainment app development company and creator of the ZombieBooth series with more than 25 million total downloads.”

Those who’ve known me for a while we know that I have a soft spot for story and play. So it’s a bit weird to see such technology-based companies in the program. It may well be because I’m overly cynical, but most of these seem to in some cases be, well, business bits that don’t necessarily need to be aligned with Disney (ie each of the companies I listed in the “business business business, numbers” section would equally be at home at Yahoo!. I would be far more interested, for example, in less product-driven companies and ones that allow for greater creativity or faster prototyping/feedback loops. Whilst Choremonster and Codarica could easily benefit from the use of Disney IP, Choremonster is, from my new-obssessed brain, an Old Thing (remember Chore Wars?[2]) whose time might finally have come with mobile devices and wireless networking, plus kid-friendly interfaces. But I would love to see something like an interactive fiction outfit like Playfic[3], by the almost stupendously productive Andy Baio, that let you play in a Disney sandbox of characters.

Perhaps that’s what disappoints me about what’s currently visible with all of these selected startups: they don’t feel magical. They don’t necessarily feel like they hearken back to a Disney time of old. Now, that might easily be because the whole point of a Disney partnership is to get access to a kind of Brain Trust at Pixar or Disney Animation. But if there’s anything that Catmull’s taught us, it’s that you need to build your own Brain Trust.

Perhaps Ubooly and Sphero, “smart” toys could do with some great character design that make at least the latter feel, I don’t know, a bit more personable. Sphero, decked out in white and clear plastic, is a sort of 2001-esque Clean Future, one with no soft edges, intended to be pristine rather than kicked and scuffed around. These robots that will change the way we play, will they have names written on them, in the way that Andy wrote on Woody’s foot?

And then at the very least, the notion that Transmedia is Dead – that story across multiple platforms isn’t interesting and that we’ve moved on to apps and utilities and smart products. Bringing to life a Disney Universe across multiple platforms is something that Disney Infinity is supposed to do, or that’s suited to the Marvel (cinematic) universe. But obviously not a focus of this particular accelerator (or, did no one think to apply?)

None, not one of the things on the list, seem to scream out to me about the magic of storytelling. And that feels sad.

I don’t know, I guess. I suppose I expected more, and it’s weird that I feel sad that I’m not more excited about this slate.

[1] Disney Accelerator

[2] Chore Wars

[3] PlayFic