Episode One Hundred and Fifty Four: The Networked Lens; Twitch; Sufficient Density

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Is it really hiding if you’re telling a whole bunch of people you’re hiding? In any event: crashed in my hotel room in DC having made wonderful intentions of going to all of today’s conference talks and didn’t sleep well at all. Woke up most of the night and did that thing where you perpetually hit the snooze button before deciding (and, I guess listening to my somewhat bruised and battered body) that maybe I should just give in and try to sleep for a bit.

This hotel room doesn’t have a minibar, but it does have one of those G-Link ports just in case you’re the kind of person who carries a spare HDMI cable to plug their laptop into the TV. Or, you know, you want to plug in an S-video video source. Because…? I’m not sure. This hotel is also the kind where your room can look out onto a massive internal atrium, and the feeling that you’re less in a building and more an arcology, a sort of vertical spaceship full of identical corridors and maintenance lines, lifts, cubbies, support staff. I’ve only ever been on a cruise ship once – a family holiday – and it felt like we were living in a shopping mall. If we ever do get off this planet and start heading somewhere, anywhere else, how long until those ships feel like shopping malls, too?

So: 1pm. Hotel room. Room service ordered. Writing now. Plans to reorganise my talk for Friday. Looking at an email backlog. Buddy-taping my toe.

1.0 The Networked Lens

The collision of two things in my head: Derek Powazek’s earlier essay, The Third Wave of Photo Sharing[1] from which I pulled his coined phrase “the web created the modern camera” for episode one hundred and thirty eight[2] and, predictably, the celebrity photo theft that now looks like it wasn’t the product of one specific flaw, but more the implosion of a ring of secrecy around nude celebrity photo trading darknets[3].

Amidst all of this, lots of hand-wringing, and I’m not excusing myself from this, on what the “cloud” is and whether we people should be afforded reasonable expectations of privacy and security, a whole bunch of victim shaming and at the same time probably not enough recognition of the nuance that you can be a high-profile target or a low-profile target or anywhere in between. That said, I think it’s possible these days for *anyone* to be a high-profile target. In other words, what made Jennifer Lawrence a high-profile target was her celebrity, what makes *you* a high profile target is the fact that you might at one point have, or have had, a jilted ex-lover.

And then: even more decisions to be made, even better (more understood? more transparent?) products to be made and their benefits communicated. John Gruber asserts that we’re missing the silent benefit of having automatic backups[4] with services like iCloud and Google+ Photos – but this strikes me as being the trade-off that you have to make that you don’t really want to have to make. Your choice is binary at the moment: either back nothing up automatically, or back everything automatically. But in the same way that people would look at Facebook and see a collapse of context around who you’re friends with and the environments in which you interact with them (on this, I frequently cite Matt Locke’s Six Spaces of Social Media[5], but you could also pick up a copy of danah boyd’s latest[6] for an introduction to context in computer-mediated social relationships), you have a singular application that’s used in a variety of contexts – business and personal, at the very least – for which there is only one backup setting: on or off.

You can see Apple’s dilemma: they want to make things that are simple to understand, easy to use and that more often than not, do the Right Thing and don’t offer surprises. So what are some alternatives? Not using the main Camera app, the one that, at least until iOS 8 has been privileged in accessing certain camera functions? Using separate photo-taking apps that back up to their own stores? Remembering which app to use when you want to take a photograph? Those don’t sound particularly intuitive, but they’re off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on how you might start to separate out these different use-cases.

I was reminded by Chris Locke of Dave Eggers’ The Circle[7], a sort of Swiftian cautionary tale as to what the geniuses are up to in Silicon Valley busy inventing the future, and whilst Eggers can come in for a lot of criticism for not actually knowing what he’s talking about in terms of *specifics*, I can honestly say that the *feel* of the novel is remarkably accurate in spaces. There is, undoubtedly, a sense of *mission*. But anyway.

As Powazek says that the Web created the Modern Camera, the field of connectivity is the next upgrade. We kind of know this because we keep talking about the Internet of Things, but celebrity photo hacking is a sort of weak signal of what happens when all lenses are networked. Pretty soon it will be easier – or even *cheaper* for you to get something that takes photos and has them automatically backed up, somewhere. You will not know, nor would you be expected to know, I suppose, whether that online store is “secure” or not. In other words, if you wanted to unbundle even more (and this goes against the tendency for bigger, more expensive things to aggregate in computing devices), you could imagine free-at-the-point-of-consumption cameras, hooked into ubiquitous wireless network coverage, that came with their own backup store either ad-funded or subscription funded. Free cameras. Lifetime storage. Just click past this message from our sponsor. Or, you know, Amazon provides the service and runs backend vision processing spun-up on its servers that will dynamically provide buy-it-now links when you view the photos.

The point that I’m taking from Powazek’s essay is that the default will be – in case it isn’t obvious already – that all photographs taken *will be* online. They are only marginally hard to get online now, and that’ll become even easier. The first internet of things object may well have been the lens.

[1] The Third Wave of Photo Sharing – Derek Powazek
[2] Episode 138: The Web Created The Modern Camera
[3] Notes on the Celebrity Data Theft – Nik Cubrilovic
[4] Security Trade-Offs  – Daring Fireball
[5] Six Spaces of Social Media – Matt Locke
[6] It’s Complicated – danah boyd
[7] The Circle – Dave Eggers / Amazon

2. Twitch

At dinner with one friend and a new acquaintance, scratching our heads as to how so many other companies could have passed up the chance to buy Twitch. For about $1bn, a steal for Amazon, because if you’re reading the signs and portents right, then this is pretty much an instant replay of what happened when Google bought YouTube, only, as pointed out by my friend – we know what happened when Google bought YouTube.

So, here’s who didn’t buy Twitch: Disney (ABC, ESPN, any number of videogame properties), Sony (media outlets, televisions, videogames and videogame consoles), Microsoft (perpetual failed media/entertainment ambitions, not really sure what it’s doing online other than “services”, videogames and videogame consoles), GoPro (an emerging media brand in its own right, and yes, I shoot myself for writing “media brand”), Red Bull (which will be interesting to watch because they’ve focussed on “live” stuff, it feels), Any Other Broadcaster Worth Their Salt and, obviously, YouTube.

Look, we know these things: we know that live events work. We know that championship videogame matches are routinely returning concurrent streams in excess of 5 million viewers, and cumulative viewer figures are just a bit mental[1]. So you’d think broadcasters would be looking at this sort of thing and saying: hm, what other live events could we capitalise upon? You don’t even have the problem of needing physical space, in a sense, to start with videogame streaming, and it’s only going to get easier.

Is it the cultural legitimacy problem? Is it that the broadcast networks are still looking down on their noses toward the “gamers” – and after the last few weeks, who could blame them? Probably, yeah: these types of cultural change don’t happen quickly, they happen when they happen and what mostly needs to happen is that management needs to age out and get out of the way for the people who understand what’s going on, most of the time.

Twitch is going to be a big deal. It’ll be interesting to find out who else was in the running.

[1] The International Dota 2 tournament watched by more than 20M viewers, Valve says – The Verge

3. Sufficient Density

The idea behind Miranda July’s Somebody[1] isn’t necessarily a new one, but it’s one of those ideas whose time is just about coming. Basically, a sort of real-life implementation of Bruce Sterling’s Maneki Neko[2], the realisation that when you have a sufficient density of network connected people, you can treat them like, well, nodes in a connected network. And you can use them to route packets from one to another. It’s the kind of thing that people would’ve had the idea for years ago – the writing’s been on the wall for ages for this kind of thing – but that tech people get a bit too excited about, or only really works as an art project (which, to be fair, is what July’s project is) because you need that Sufficient Density. But, we kind of have it now. It’s a sort of phase change. You see it in Bluetooth-powered mesh networking chat apps like Firechat[3] – no reliance upon existing network infrastructure, just on the individual nodes having sufficient density to throw up a network. Again, mesh networks have been on the weak-signal radar for years, but they’ve always relied upon having some sort of extant infrastructure that can be repurposed. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, the in-universe equivalent of the Xbox 360 is repurposed through live boot CDs that bring up a custom, unauthorised operating system that creates an ad-hoc mesh network using the built-in wireless adapters in consumer gaming hardware.

But now – what’s the density of smartphones that can run a Bluetooth stack in the background, act as a little anonymous identifier and pass off packets to each other in the wild? Or, think about it this way: given what state actors did with Stuxnet, and how it got to where it needed to go, and how many zero-day vulnerabilities went into it, what could you do with a massive network of rootable phones?

This is partly what’s meant by software as a material – there’s a computing substrate that’s been deployed in our cities, and whether you’re Team Android or Team iOS, there are enough of them out there for you to think of this as a computing substrate, a nascent infrastructure that’s just lying in wait. Until recently, we haven’t had the battery life, hardware and OS maturity to have persistent, low-power connections on devices, but now we do thanks to protocols like Bluetooth LE. And that’s just the malware – what could Transport for London do with a smartphone based mesh network?

[1] Somebody
[2] Maneki Neko – Bruce Sterling
[3] The Latest Chat App for iPhone Needs No Internet Connection – MIT Tech Review
[4] Little Brother – Cory Doctorow

10:20pm, a day full of hiding in the hotel room and doing things like re-watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier (did you notice that the bit where Black Widow is making backups and then has to dive through a window because of a grenade has a pretty much identical counterpart with Zhen in Mission: Impossible 3, when the team is extracting Lindsey?), the first of the new Capaldi Doctor Who and listlessly poking at the internet, suspiciously eying a bottle of prescription hydrocodone sitting on the desk, being irritated by the pain down my left side.

Send notes. Tomorrow is the day before my talk on Friday, so I’m going to be a gibbering wreck, as always.