Episode One Hundred and Ninety Two: Bureaucracy Is An Algorithm; Vapourware; No New Ideas 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:57pm on a school night – although not a particularly schoolish one for me seeing as the office is shut today on account of it being President’s Day here in the US. Instead, pancakes for breakfast, visiting grandparents and The Day After The Second Birthday Party, so lots of wondering why we can’t just eat cupcakes all the time (him, not me).

1.0 Bureaucracy Is An Algorithm

With a hat tip to Christopher Kent[1], the re-stating of the obvious that bureaucracy is an algorithm – means to get done that which needs to get done with what you have to hand – in this case, being, well, a pre-networked society. In other less laboured words: bureaucracy – the administrative procedure, not the bit of government, but we for whom we have to thank for the linking of the two concepts *I’m looking at you, British Government* – is just another system for dealing with the world and the stuff we have to do in it.

Two other things here: the first, the re-linking recently of a Forbes piece by Anthony Wing Kosner about Jobs Below The API[2], and the second being Sam Altman’s blog post on the Software Revolution[3], another attempt at stating what exactly it is that’s happening in the world right now in terms of the intersection between globalisation, capitalism, IP networks, Moore’s Law and wireless connectivity.

I’m not the only one who thinks that the 21st century organisation – that thing where people have to slot into boxes and HR needs a certain kind of job description before you can hire anyone, and where the concept of cross-functional/multi-disciplinary/end-to-end teams is a bit nebulous if not, well, unheard of – is outdated, but at the same time it’s not clear to me that there are necessarily any great front-runners in terms of its replacement (not least of which because the organisation, the company, the Weyland-Yutani building better worlds to sell things in, is a product of its environment. If, way back in episode forty-seven[4], I was right (or at least aiming in a vaguely interesting direction) by thinking of our info-tech conglomerates busy terraforming the developing world for capitalism (such developing world already quite ready thanks very much and not quite needing the narrative of well-meaning white guys in suits coming in to fix it again), then perhaps something else in the same direction is interesting: what is connectivity terraforming for? There’s one view of the future which is a kind of Charlie Strossian/Cory Doctorian early 2000s extremist view where everyone’s got whuffie (bitcoin) out of their wazoo and is a self-facilitating media node endlessly forming, breaking up and re-forming fluid overlays of collaboration and getting paid by aforementioned micro-cryptocurrencies, but then there’s the other one, which is a bit like this: what does the non-silo’d organisation look like? Do any of you work at one? Pixar isn’t it. There are arguments that Valve, with their wheel-anywhere desks is it, but at the same time Valve doesn’t always sound like the video game development utopia that it projects through cunningly released employee handbooks. Are startups and Facebooks and Googles that inevitable take on the trappings of bureaucracy (inevitably once they start hiring adult supervision) really the best example that we’ve got?

I guess what’s scary is this: what happens when we really can do more, with less? Or rather, what happens when *some* people can do more, with less? When it only takes twenty people to build and maintain something that half a billion other people can use – and find enough utility to use daily, but not necessarily pay anything for – but those twenty people happened to have the right starting conditions, the right environment? It’s one thing for some of those people to say “well, the prevailing belief on Hacker News is that we should tax the rich and guarantee some sort of basic income” but it’s not as if I see there being a big campaign for the basic income. From either Hacker News or A16Z (of whom, if memory serves, Marc Andreessen also happens to believe that the safety net is due some proper sort of execution. As it were).

Because people are obviously doing more with less. And that “under the API” curve is just another way of saying that Jobs Get Swallowed and really, there’s no point in fighting it – and sometimes jobs can get swallowed faster and sometimes you can fight it a little bit, but really: if fewer people – ie those who can afford the right starting conditions, which increasingly include things like ‘college’ or ‘connectivity and equipment’, end up making more of the gains, then, well, draw your own hockey stick.

Basic income, basic connectivity, and basic compute resource.

[1] https://twitter.com/cekent/status/566252202139074560
[2] Google Cabs And Uber Bots Will Challenge Jobs ‘Below The API’ – Anthony Wing Kosner
[3] The Software Revolution – Sam Altman
[4] Episode Forty Seven – Building Better Worlds; Mobile; More video

2.0 Vapourware

White papers are the vapourware of government.

That’s it. Nothing more than that, really. Just the observation that if a prototype is worth however many meetings, then a prototype is worth however many white papers. Sure, I’ll allow that white papers if properly applied in the right place at the right time with the right amount of pressure might be effective to do things like “start a debate” or “open an Overton window”, but wouldn’t you rather ship something than write something down?

3.0 No New Ideas

So Warren Ellis has a new column in Esquire and in his latest, this is the bit that caught my eye:

Things don’t “just work” the way they were claimed to, online services are getting bloated and broken, network interoperability has been ruined by carriage disputes over eyeballs and naked grabs for user information, and apparently the important thing is that we buy a three-hundred-quid watch that connects to our phones and does absolutely nothing that our phones don’t do. It’s a desperate move from a field that’s run out of ideas.[1]

This feels a bit awkward, because it’s kind of like pointing a stick at Mr. Ellis and saying ‘now see here, Mr. Ellis’ but I feel like picking out the beginning of that paragraph and the end of it: namely that we do have a complete lack of things ‘just working’ the way they were claimed to (and have always claimed to, to be fair), and I wonder how much of ‘just working’ is a prerequisite for new ideas in the first place. In other words: right now, I would probably take ten more things just-working than one more new idea. Perhaps that might just give us the space to come up with some new stuff, rather than endlessly trying to re-invent and re-execute the same tired old ones from 1978, just in slightly shinier form factors than the last (ie: your wrist, not your pocket, not your lap, not your desk, not a room, not an entire factory floor) and hoping for a magical market breakthrough. Not that I’m blaming “the market” or anything, but if we’re to believe the invisible hand that by all accounts has exceedingly bad impulse control, what we really need right now is a television that ‘just works’.

[1] It’s Still 1978 Somewhere: The New Digital Watches – Warren Ellis

8:25, and still on a school night. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll see you tomorrow.