Episode One Hundred and Forty Eight: Better Days

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

10:15pm on a weeknight, and I normally try to write these things in the morning. A fractured day, work-wise, not so fractured if you look at it from the point of view of my son, who got to do a whole bunch of super fun things today, but despite that remained adorably cranky. Tomorrow, a packed day.

1.0 Better Days

Deb Chachra – not Deb Cha, as I wrote in yesterday’s episode – has posted a public version[1] of the rant she previously wrote in her newsletter, Metafoundry. Both are worth reading. There’s a few things that stuck in my mind:

– the concept of a sentinel organism. It seems similar to Tim O’Reilly’s concept of “weak signals” around which he built conferences like ETech and holds gatherings like FooCamp, but at least the idea of a sentinel organism implies an ecosystem in which that organism can survive and reproduce. A better definition, I think, for that-thing-you-find-that-is-a-precursor-or-alert-to-a-larger-thing. Chachra links to indictor species[3], which from the wikipedia reading at least, are species that are unique and possess traits in part defined by their environment. The techbros, such as we call them, are indicator species of the particular Valley/VC environment.

– the selection pressure of a VC ecosystem towards “bits, not atoms (near-zero incremental cost), towards anything that leverages Metcalfe’s Law, towards dark patterns of nonconsensual behaviour towards users (like strip-mining Contacts lists), towards eroding user privacy, to dumping everything users have created when the startup is acquihired, and towards falling back on invasive online advertising because having a viable business model was a distant second to growing a user base,” just because when you’re batting for the biggest return possible, and that’s how you build your business, then you need to, well, find every way possible to bring about that fitness.

Some of you will be asking: OK, so where’s the hedge? The hedge is obviously anywhere-apart-from-the-Valley, but at the moment it feels like bar some *regional* examples (hi, China) that have particular barriers to entry (hi, the Chinese government), Valley-model businesses are the most successful.

Part of the hedge is looking for Other Valleys – and if you’re into that (and why wouldn’t you be?) then you should probably subscribe to Anjali Ramachandran’s newsletter, Other Valleys[4]. In other words: there’s a tonne of stuff happening out there, and if we feel it’s important for the Valley to *not* be the sole representative of transformative software and technology, then we should cheerlead other examples.

Robin Sloan, for example, pointed out to me that the obsession with the Valley leads to a sort of blindness. You don’t get, he says, things like Minecraft coming out of the Valley system: it’s too weird, too free, too hard, too difficult. His metaphor is that of the provinces – you’ve got this geographical nexus that for whatever reason is sucking all the time and attention from the vast majority of people, but it’s a tiny dot in a sea of the Whole Damn Planet Earth. From Sloan’s point of view, it’s the provinces that are the interesting bit. So when he says that, you remember things about Ev Williams being out in Nebraska and finding out about the internet for the first time and it being pretty much the only way he could escape Nebraska without physically escaping Nebraska. Ev’s talk at XOXO 2014[5] is pretty much all about this – at least, the first half is. It is, weirdly, this particularly human capability we have to zero-in and focus on one spot and ignore the rest of the picture which feels a bit like how our actual optical system works: if there’s stuff happening, track it with your fovea so you get a 4K60p picture but the *entire rest of the world* is happening. Or, you know, concentrate on the shiny dots in the sky and explore the planets but forget that you’ve got an entire rest-of-the-oceans to explore, because hey, did you remember that two thirds of this blue planet is, well, blue? Sloan’s point, then, is not: *how can we make the Valley suck less* (which we should still be doing) but also: why are we paying so much attention to the Valley in the first place? One of the things you *can* do to affect change in a system that doesn’t want it in the first place is to make it jealous.

But this section is titled Better Days. I kicked myself this morning when I read Paul Ford’s piece on Medium in the GE-sponsored What’s Next section. It’s a mildly satirical Day-In-The-Life set in August 20, 2064, fifty years in the future[6]. There’s the usual sponsored bits but they’re quite easy to skip over and they kind of manage to signpost themselves in a pretty funny way, e.g. hey, did you know that the Industrial Internet is a thing? Why no, I did not, thank you General Electric? And may I have a FunCooker now?

But anyway.

Aside from the copious Easter Eggs, it’s clear to see that Ford enjoyed writing it, and it has that whimsical tone that you can see from his earlier work like the Robot Exclusion Protocol[7] from 2002 which some of us laughed at at the time and others kind of looked at and said well you might think this is funny now…

But it’s also weirdly non-dystopic. I mean, some parts of it are horrifying but it doesn’t sound *too* bad and certainly doesn’t sound – at least to my reading – like an unlivable hellscape full of torment from which we shan’t be able to escape. It just sounds like, well, now, but with slightly better logistics. It’s telling, though, that Ford isn’t completely sure that it’s a nice future (it sounds like a Pleasantville future at times) and he oscillates between it being harmless and terrifying, saying that:

“I go back and forth. With this future I do worry that 99% of the people not in the story live underground and eat soylent.”[8]

because whilst the piece might talk about manufactories and the logical-end-run of just-in-time manufacturing, there is the creeping suspicion that there’s a tonne of people in still-developing countries busy being the Actual Replicator instead of the magic one that you get to see in corporate vision videos. That said, it’s not like Ford said *where* the story was set.

At any rate, there’s a new collection of science fiction coming out later this year in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by this guy you might have heard of, Neal Stephenson, designed to answer the call for an *optimistic* as opposed to dystopic depiction of the future. Our generation, argues Stephenson, or well really any generation past the 1960s, hasn’t had the benefit of big, bold, make-the-world-better fiction. Instead it’s been all-downhill-from-here, and the best you can hope for is to have your mind-state uploaded and sharded and punted across as much of the universe as possible before the depressed author decides that it’s Heat Death time and you get to The End.

Part of this is that the problem with the present isn’t so much technology as it is capitalism and the system that technology finds itself embedded in. It feels like people have as much beef with the context as the tools. “Imagine better tools for better days!” goes the cry, but when you’ve spent your whole life in the thrall of the invisible hand, what better is there? Even when we write about utopian, post-scarcity galaxy-spanning cultures with a capital Culture, there’s still not that much to look forward to.

So. Optimism. Excitement. Less grinding. More *actual* delight, not that shitty manufactured stuff that we all talk about in meetings where we pat ourselves on the back if we time a menu animation just right. Real delight. More of that, please.

[1] Metafoundry 4: Indicator Species – Deb Chachra
[2] Metafoundry – Deb Chachra
[3] Indicator Species – Wikipedia
[4] Other Valleys – Anjali Ramachandran
[5] Ev Williams – XOXO
[6] Wednesay Aug. 20, 2064 – What’s Next / Paul Ford – Medium
[7] Robot Exclusion Protocol – Ftrain.com
[8] https://twitter.com/ftrain/status/502265723558064128

10:48pm, and time for bed. Love you all, send me notes, all of that stuff.