Episode One Hundred and Seventy Seven: We Will Sell it To You Wholesale 

by danhon

 0.0 Sitrep

7:07pm on a Sunday, about 10,000 feet above Oregon on the way down to San Francisco again for a few days in the office. I didn’t write on Friday – something that I’m aware of but trying not to beat myself up about. There’s a flaw in my mental machinery that I’ve noticed where success seems to be balanced on a knife-point. If the Seinfeldian unbroken line of Xs in the diary against each day is broken, then that’s a failure: it means resetting and starting from zero again. It’s not a kind attitude to take, certainly not one that rationally understands that sometimes in the universe, Shit Happens that means that you miss one day every now and again, whether it’s for something like exercising or writing every day. What I can understand rationally as mattering is the journey and the practice, not the numbers: fall off the horse, get back on the horse. Don’t just stare at the mud and wail and wallow about how you’ve fallen off the horse: just get back on it. It doesn’t matter. So: on a Sunday night, writing today, instead of Friday.

1.0 We Will Sell It To You Wholesale

Via Deb Chachra[1], Paul Raven’s blog post about a non-technologically focussed utopia[2]. There were a couple things about Raven’s post that stuck in my head: first, that “hardly anyone’s buying utopias these days” and connected later on in the post that “we’e had enough historical and personal experience with previous technologies failing to deliver upon their utopian promises that we are no longer willing to take them on face value.”

There are other points of Raven’s – the central piece of his post as I understand it is to try to remind people that progress is as often societal (ie, in that it’s a result of people changing, not merely the introduction of new technologies, and a reminder that technologies are as much processes as they are anything to do with binary and processing on silicon substrates, as is the current vogue).

So, a few things that I wonder: the idea that as a culture or society we’ve wised up to the *marketing* and promises of technology: that most people alive right now have had time to remember the difference between what’s been promised and what we actually ended up with. There are certain things that technology has promised that haven’t come about either because they’re about technology solving *human* problems that, if you will, have an inadequate understanding of user need or user research in terms of whether they’d actually work in the real world: for every promise of office automation and a paperless office, we end up with more email in more places.

On the other hand, we get things like the broadly-true-in-principle-but-not-execution of AT&T’s You Will[3, 4] advertising campaign of the late 90s. In the midst of euphoria about the information superhighway we get the put-your-kids-to-sleep-over-the-videophone idea, but AT&T thought we’d be doing it over fixed lines (no doubt ISDN, because it’s not like anyone was going to install fiber anywhere, right?) or ordering concert tickets from an ATM or sending a fax from a laptop on a beach – all of these things we do now, because they were solved by networks and infrastructure, and they didn’t necessarily require us *changing the way we do things*. Well, not really, right? I mean, it’s like we still *want* to buy concert tickets wherever we want, and we still *want* to say goodnight to our kids over Facetime or whatever.

An aside: Facetime works because it works like a *phone call* and it is unlike Skype. It doesn’t require signing in to a presence server. You just “call someone up” using Facetime and it interrupts what they’re doing. They can choose to ignore the call. Every other video chat service requires you to be *signed in to the video service* in that there’s also a state where you’re also *not signed in to the video service*. I mean, imagine if you had to actually have an *app running, that you signed in to* on your phone for you to receive phone calls? (Yes, I know some of you would choose to never sign in to it and to delete it). I digress.

I was going to say something about the inherently short lifespans of human beings and that for us to like technology we need to see appreciable change within out lifetimes, and hey, it turns that in the last century, we *have* seen appreciable change within a cohort’s lifetime. But my gut reckon is that there’s been such a lag between the promise of the thing and the actual realisation and delivery of the thing. In AT&T’s case, it was 20 years after the ad campaign ran in the mid-90s before an appreciable proportion of the population had access to the services and products promised.

So I wonder if part of this is about simply *delivery*. Part of Raven’s piece is about how so many things that are part of a utopia are actually deliverable *now*, if we want them to be. e-government that works and is usable by the whole population is something that the UK’s Government Digital Service is trying to do (and there’s me hitting my quota of GDS-mentions-per-newsletter-episode again). Facetime is, I think, a better attempt at making video-calls-that-work, work, and you can easily imagine a pseudo-irrational Steve Jobs saying that it should literally be “as easy as calling someone” and then someone saying “but Skype does that” and him saying: “that’s not as easy as calling someone”.

Perhaps part of the deal is that the geeks who build the things we have in the world, the ones inspired by science fiction are the ones who’re also inspired by the potential of things, and not necessarily the solid realisation of things. In a science-fictional outlook of the world, there’s always a tomorrow, always a better technology, always a Moore’s law and a manufacturing process advance that means that we don’t *really* have to work harder at making software easier, we can just throw more clock cycles or more transistors or cores at the problem and hope it goes away.

As a science fictional geek, I am, I think, seduced by the potential of things to be amazing, and it’s a different thing to try to make those things right now. That, I imagine, is a difference between utopian product design and actual hands-dirty engineering.

And this is why the marketers and advertisers get a bad rap. They lie: it is so easy to sell us the promise of a thing and not the actual thing. The marketing of technology has been a marketing of possibilities, and who would blame us for being tired of possibilities when instead we want delivery?

My ex-employer launched Windows 95, but I’m not sure if they came up with the “Where do you want to go today?” tagline that Microsoft used. I presume that they did. Steve Jobs famously described the computer as the bicycle for the mind. But somewhere along the way, the promise of technology ran away from us. That’s why, I think, we don’t trust it anymore. Because the story it’s been telling to us has been disingenuous.

[1] https://twitter.com/debcha/status/521440551393329153 – Deb Chachra
[2] Make technological utopia easier with this one weird trick – Paul Raven
[3] You Will – Wikipedia
[4] You Will – YouTube

8:02pm. See you tomorrow. As ever – send me notes.