Episode One Hundred and Ninety Three: Internet of Capitalism; Internet of Things Winter; Transmogrify 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:53pm on Tuesday February 17th, the day after President’s Day, so the first day back at work after a long weekend. Sprint planning meetings on two big projects, and lots of admin work: all the stuff to do with keeping a team moving along and headed in the right direction. *waves to team*.

I’m not sure what I’m going to write about today. I sometimes keep a text file open and drop links into it during the day that I think I’ll have thoughts on, or opinions about. I know there’s one thing that I want to cover, but beyond that, not quite so sure…

1.0 Internet of Capitalism

In Joe Chip’s problem was never his door[1], Tom Armitage deftly takes the room that’s required to deconstruct the particular Philip K. Dick passage from Ubik that’s been doing the rounds, pointing out that this isn’t so much the Internet of Things sucking, but that it’s the Internet of Things sucking under Capitalism.

As Armitage points out, the thing that Dick was able to extrapolate wasn’t that the future could and would be connected, with a variety of interesting and mundane devices talking to each other, but that we would inevitably force that network of devices to operate under the auspices of capitalism. That we would have, instead of an Internet of Things, an Internet of Contracts.

This has already been contemplated. Go to any Bitcoin conference, and there’s probably good odds that there’ll be someone there talking about how the blockchain enables all of these connected devices – doors, doorframes, doorbells, floor mats and so on, to enforce a directed-graph of obligations and charges to each other, all enabled by not just the cryptocurrency of the day, but the distributed and validatable ledger that holds it all together.

Fast Company covers this – in a sense – in their article The Gig Economy Won’t Last Because It’s Being Sued To Death[2], that I’m not entirely sure about because they (Fast Company) appear to be coming down on the side of the “gig economy” and a headline that seems to lament the possible passing of the Gig Economy. The Gig Economy, of course, being one of the outcomes that Dick would anticipate:

But the gig economy can also be interpreted as a loophole for avoiding labor laws—more of a familiar nightmare than a new dream. Robert Reich, a political economist and the former secretary of labor, compares it to the piecework system of the late 19th century, the very same system that led to trade unions and labor protections in the first place. “There is no economic security, there is no predictability, and there is no power among workers to get a fair share of the profits,” he says. “You and I and everybody else, if the present trends continue, will be selling what we do to the highest bidder.”

Ah, the highest bidder. The Fiverr and TaskRabbit of the invisible hand, guiding slowly and inexorably toward creative directors, chief operating officers and human resource directors, all the usual occupants of the B ark, all of them subject to becoming, at some point, either parties in a marketplace, where all we’re really looking for is something like centralised, automatic, Project Cybersyn-style[3] efficient allocation of resource.

For what it’s worth, it’s unclear whether we’ll ever get to a utopian, Star Trek-ian post scarcity economy, or whether we’ll find a way to auto-extinct ourselves before we get there. Right now, it feels like instead of inventing a future of freedom, we’re quite happy inventing a future where we just keep a) destroying jobs, b) inventing jobs and c) moving bits of capital around, but mainly in one direction, toward smaller and smaller groups.

All of the above, of course, is just your regular Tuesday night reckon.

Where are the futures where some things really are free? Stephenson’s Diamond Age had a sort-of basic income implemented through compilers/3D printers: each individual had a baseline amount of feedstock, or at least a flow-volume of feedstock that could be used to make things like food, or, in Nell’s case, mattresses. That future is so, so far away – and it’s not like it was ever really desirable in the first place.

[1] Joe Chip’s problem was never his door – Tom Armitage
[2] The Gig Economy Won’t last Because It’s Being Sued To Death – Sarah Kessler, Fast Company
[3] Project Cybersyb – Wikipedia

2.0 Internet Of Things Winter

The danger (thanks, Kim Pallister) of the current wave of Internet of Things products is that they kind-of work in a not-quite-working kind of way. Sitting with Tom Coates and having him show me things, there’s a lot of shoddy stuff out there. It feels like there’s a bunch of factors in play here: that everyone is egging everyone else on in some gigantic game of chicken that will actually result in “winners” some day, but perhaps not quite soon – Internet of Things is going to be massive, because the Internet before it was massive, but maybe thinking about the Internet of Things right now is more like thinking about the Information Superhighway. We’re at the 90s era of Tom Selleck telling us about all the things that we’ll be doing, like reading bedtime stories over videophone to our kids from a payphone kiosk, rather than essentially missing the point of ubiquitous wireless connectivity. Oh, and the culture of shipping.

I think it’s fair to say that startups are starting to get that hardware is hard – you only need to look at a whole bunch of broken Kickstarter dreams to quickly get up to speed with the notion that unless you really know what you’re doing, what can on the outside look quite easy to do, actually requires a lot of time and effort and that this appears to scale in a sort of log fashion: the easier something looks, the more time and effort has gone into it. Here’s a quote from the recent New Yorker piece on Jony Ive:

The company’s process, which is enabled by almost limitless funds, and by sometimes merciless pressure on suppliers and manufacturers, also provides a layer of commercial armor plating: an Apple object is “manufactured in a way that makes it harder to copy,” Paola Antonelli said. “That’s the genius. It’s not only the formal effect.” When, in 2007, Robert Brunner first saw a MacBook’s “unibody” housing—made, unprecedentedly, out of a milled block of aluminum—it was a “mind-blowing epiphany,” he said. Apple “had decided that this was the experience they wanted, so they went out and bought ten thousand C.N.C. milling machines.” (Apple didn’t confirm that figure, but Brunner was not being hyperbolic.) Soon after the iPhone débuted, Brunner said, Ammunition was approached by “a very large Korean company” to create a touchscreen competitor: “They wanted us to do it in six weeks.” He laughed. “We were, like, ‘You don’t realize, this was years. This was years of a lot of very good people.’ ”[1]

Something that looks so simple, with all that friction-stir welding that had all us Apple geeks googling during the product Keynote, and all those jokes about aircraft grade milled aluminium (with an extra I, thank you very much), took years to pull off.

So internet switches should switch. Nest smoke alarms should, you know, detect smoke, and then be easy to turn off if they’ve gone all false-positive on you. Things should work. We give computers a whole bunch of latitude, quite why I don’t know, because we’ve been trained into some sort of Stockholm syndrome type thing where we don’t expect any better (and Apple users aren’t any better – we still want the Fucking Finder to be Fixed). Consumer electronics, for better or worse, have felt like they’ve had this pass in terms of “oh, well, they’re super complicated and sometimes they just don’t work and have you tried turning it off and on again?”

No, if I were being a doom and gloom naysayer, I’d say that unless someone gets really good at *executing* the internet of things, and internet-connected-things and so on, then you’re just going to end up with the same bunch of people who’re looking forlornly at their wrists, wondering what Fuel is, and how many steps they should be taking.

“It just works” means so much more when there’s hardware *and* software involved. Are there only so many things as an industry that we can concentrate on? Whilst Sony’s PS4 is an unqualified improvement over its predecessor, the OS is still an unmitigated piece of Sony crap. Because, you see, even if you are slightly better crap than your previous version, you’re still crap.

[1] The Shape of Things to Come – Ian Parker, the New Yorker

3.0 Transmogrify

I am still thinking about digital transformation, to the extent that I’ve gone in some very dark places on the internet and read things like reports[1] where there are shocking things like a) the percentage of CEOs “supporting and championing digital change within your company” (42%) and the percentage of CMOs doing the same (54%) which leads me to the inevitable conclusion, basically, that we’re fucked: it is going to be easier to start new businesses that are digital first than it is to transform legacy pre-digital businesses. Mainly because such a change ultimately comes down to culture, and if you don’t have a leader at the front with the executive authority and trust to start changing that culture, then I don’t know what YouTube is, I’ll ask my fourteen year old neighbour and maybe she can tell me what Minecraft is at the same time, I think it’s a new Lego game.

I don’t know, apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all.

[1] The 2014 State of Digital Transformation – Altimeter

8:28pm. That’ll do nicely.