Episode One Hundred and Six: Meat Puppets; The Circuit

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It was eighty-ish and sunny today in Portland, which, as I explained to a friend, makes sense because I use fahrenheit when it’s hot and celsius when it’s cold to get a good spread of numbers. This also probably explains why I’m not very good at baking. I keep meeting people who’re reading Creativity, Inc. who look like they’re emerging from some sort of horrible nightmarish fugue state and they’re frantically pawing at the glass and brick and steel of Pixar’s Steve Jobs building like a zombie horde wanting to be saved from bad management.

It turns out there’s a lot of bad management out there.

It also turns out that one of the most consistent antidotes to bad management is a) hard work and b) giving a shit.

1.0 Meat Puppets

Okay, so as far as I can tell, this is a real thing[1], and not, as pointed out on Twitter[2] some sort of artistic intervention. What meat puppets, I hear you ask? In this instantiation, it’s nothing more (more or less) than the remote control of other humans. Sure, in this version it’s all opt-in: “actors” (the remote controlled humans) are directed by “directors”, who tell them what to do and see what they see and experience what they experience through an outward facing 4G/LTE phone running an app. Basically, camgirls, but out in the real world.

Meat Puppets has always been a pretty derogatory term: humans being made of meat[3], after all, and puppetry implying the slack, non-conscious remote appendage controlled by something else at a distance. Of course, you have a mouth and you must scream if you’re made of meat and you’re being controlled by something else.

One of the signs that this is real and not, say, a piece of performance art or a scam is that it’s on Kickstarter and not, say, Indiegogo, which shall we say is less thorough with the kind of stuff it allows on its site. But what’s also interesting is the way that Karl Lautman, the project instigator (and, for those keeping score, someone with 20 years of experience in sales and marketing) talks about the *risks* of the project, which is something you’re encouraged to do on Kickstarter. The risks are entirely project-based in terms of risks for the backers, so of course, the first (and most important risk) is that the site might not respond well to the crushing demand it will be under when it launches! Sure, it’s running on the cloud (“everything that doesn’t happen on the phone takes place on Amazon Web Services and is designed for scaleability”). The second risk is again, of user experience for backers and people who might be using the service in terms of *quality* of service – latency. You don’t want there to be a crucial delay when you’re getting your meat puppet to do something, for example. Whether that’s checking out new office space (their example) or um, anything slightly less salubrious. I mean, I have *no idea* what this could possibly be used for that might be morally questionable or might take advantage of at-risk people. Oh no. Not at all. In the geek way, of course, the only real negative example that’s talked about is “[assembling] an army of Actors and [making] a bid for world domination.”

The following isn’t intended to be a slight to Kickstarter – a service I love and respect and have used a lot as a backer (man, if that sentence doesn’t sound like a “some of my best friends are on Kickstarter!” defence), but when a project like this says: “one of the reasons we’re using Kickstarter is to find out how others might use Zabosu”, one of the first things that comes into my mind is: you either don’t have a good imagination, or you’re willfully *not* imagining things and foisting them upon the “community” to say that you couldn’t possibly have anticipated them.

Spoiler: humans are pretty predictable when it comes to their baser instincts.

I mean, if, for example, you wanted to harass someone at a distance in a plausibly deniable way: well, this just makes it much easier, right? So I wonder what Zabosu might be doing to counteract that. Because that’s a pretty easy use-case that you’d want to design around to prevent, right?

So, it has come to this. The meat puppets that we’d imagined in the past, and this is *yet another* way for me to point to Bruce Sterling’s short story Maneki Neko[4] (Haughey, this one’s for you. Again) are coming about, unsurprisingly, whether we like it or not, and it appears that they’re also most likely going to come about naively and without due consideration.

Note that I’m not saying that meat puppets shouldn’t come about at all. But that there are a bunch of fairly obvious, close-to-the-surface failure modes and *risks to actors, directors and the public at large* with technology like this, and it would be nice, just-for-fucking-once for someone who’s proposing something like this to actually have sat down and gotten past the shit-eating “I’ve just had my first wank” grin of discovering/inventing something and *actually give some due care and attention* as to how technology like this will inevitably be used, abused and subverted in the wild. Because, hey, humans: it’s what we do.

So yes, it fucking grates, it *grates* when there’s this irrational exuberance and copy on the project page that reads “[Blah, blah, blah. Quit slacking and back us already. You know you want to!]” because hey, I’m not saying that this project is like someone deciding to go off and do a Manhattan project, but JESUS CHRIST, I would’ve punched Oppenheimer in the face if, after Trinity went off, he mugged to the camera with a thumbs-up and went “PRETTY FUCKING AWESOME, AMIRITE? FUCK YEAH!”

Because that’s what this reads like. It reads like: you know what? We’ve managed to dehumanise people *again* and turn them into database records and not people who’re trying to make a buck or who are at risk or need the extra cash so they get listed in a dumb NOSQL instance somewhere in us-east, and some dick with a credit card gets to play god. Whoopde-fucking-do.

Oh, and what else? Yes, this week, we got the inevitable re-brand from TaskRabbit[5] which has, honestly, done wonders to debunk the stereotype that YES ALL WOMEN are sensitive, caring souls possessing empathy for their fellow human because after ages of calling *their* meat puppets “rabbits” in that goddamn stupid plinky-plonky folk music Innocent Smoothies-esque juvenileification of language, they’re finally trying to grow the fuck up and instead are now calling them “Taskers” (which, you know, just sounds a bit CIA).

The reason for this? Because they “received some feedback on [their] brand terminology.”

Well, yes. When you say that the people performing tasks are like small white fluffy rabbits, then yeah, you probably are going to get some “feedback on [our] brand terminology.”

Also: stop using words like “brand terminology” because it makes you look like sociopathic idiots. No one talks like that other than c-suite hugging people who think they’re too important to speak like “normal” people.

The TaskRabbit blog post is also notable because it gives us some hard numbers. Given that they’ve received feedback on their brand terminology, I’m going to apply mine and say that they now have “over 25,000 meat puppets earning an income on their site” with “10 percent (2,500) running meat-puppet tasks as full-time meat-puppet jobs.”

Funny how at times it was 25,000 *people* earning an income but at other times it was “Rabbits”, right?

And again, nice positioning to say that 25,000 meat puppets are earning an *income*, but not, you know “contributing to their income” and then to say “full-time jobs”. It’s fair to say that TaskRabbit is just another way for *most* meat puppets to take up the slack from lost income, because hey, “we now provide employment to 2,500 people” isn’t, well, the best number to be trumpeting. But hey, 10%, so go TaskRabbit!

Another thing that I couldn’t find many details about was this, in the part of the blogpost about a New! Improved! Algorithm! that would match meat-puppets with their fractional owners:

“We present the Client with a variety of suitable Tasker candidates – some tenured, some new – so the Client is able to make their selection on the grounds they see fit (e.g. experience, ratings/ reviews or price).”

What, exactly, does “tenure” mean in the context of a zero-hours contract worker? Does it mean that they’re a “permanent taskrabbit” with, oh, I don’t know, benefits? Because it doesn’t say anywhere in the help files.

But anyway. Who am I to talk: I haven’t used TaskRabbit either as a puppet or as a fractional owner.

What galls me is this: that thing about what armies do in war, about dehumanising the enemy, so that you can do Bad Things to do them to override any residual sense of morality in your fighting force? Why are we dehumanising employees? Oh, it’s a rhetorical question, all right: but what I’m getting at is this: is this a zero-sum race to the bottom where the entity that provides the best, basest API-to-humans wins? Or at some point is someone going to turn round and figure out a way to sustainably provide a route to work that’s actually respectful?

I say this because you’ve undoubtedly got Manpower, Randstad and Kelly all looking at this type of stuff and going: when do we get our cut? Or is it because they feel like they have to comply with too much red tape? There’s all this paperwork that you have to fill out when you become a temp with Manpower and there’s probably all these rules about the things that the companies these staffing providers provide service to about the things you’re *not* allowed to ask supplied personnel to do. Presumably Zabosu is going to cover all that, right? It’s not going to be some sort of disrupting free-for-all?

[1] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/780943604/remote-controlled-humans
[2] https://twitter.com/thejaymo/status/479739629495926787
[3] http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html
[4] http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/maneki-neko/
[5] http://blog.taskrabbit.com/2014/06/17/unveiling-the-new-taskrabbit/

2.0 The Circuit

I have a fun-filled few months coming up full of a bunch of speaking engagements. For mostly all of them, I’m going to be exploring what I’ve been writing about for the past few months on the subject of empathy in product and service design. So far, if you’re interested in hearing what I’ve got to say in a significantly more polished format, you can catch me at:

TEDxLiverpool, Liverpool England, 20 July
Cascadia Ruby, Portland OR, 11-12 August
HOW Interactive, Washington D.C., 3-5 September
HOW Interactive, Chicago, 19-21 October

and the one I’m most excited about, a keynote at

Web Directions South, Sydney, Australia, 30-31 October.

Specifically, I’ll be talking about the concept of an empathy gap: the gap of understanding between an organisation and its audience. You might point to the botched introduction of Google Glass as an example of an empathy gap – the benefit of having a constant connection to the internet (and all that that entails) in your peripheral vision, combined with the decision to include a camera that can take stills and video, without understanding the social norms that such a product and display would violate (and yes, even taking into account the fact that the same *practical* effect) can easily be achieved through using a conventional smartphone surreptitiously. But this failure to understand and anticipate (or, even acknowledge, until far too late) the visceral reaction that Glass received is merely evidence of a gap int he first place.

What I want to make clear, though, is that I don’t think this idea of an empathy gap applies to just Silicon Valley and stereotypical (and untrue) accusations of autism spectrum disorder engineers releasing new technology into the world. It turns out that, rightly or wrongly, this gap is experienced everywhere from the world of travel, where an airline’s customer service can frequently feel indifferent to the needs of those on a long journey; in government when theoretical legislative policy reaches implementation; and in finance, where the world over is struggling with dealing with income equality.

So. Empathy. (Or, more accurately, having been pointed in the direction of more of Stephen Pinker’s stuff that I need to read, sympathy and reason). I’m super excited.

If you’re interested in having me speak at your conference, drop me a line at dan@danhon.com. I give good talk.

Thursday! You know what I love about Thursdays? Especially when they finish? Waking up to notes from people I’ve never heard from before. They’re always awesome. Oh, and notes from people I have heard from before, too.