Episode One Hundred and Thirty Five: Digital Watches; Stay In Control; Unreasonable Empathy; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

3:30am wakeup call, cab to the airport, one flight, two flights, New Mexico and then back the same day. In-flight wifi, but too early to make use of the first one, and after doing a few emails at the terminal and peeking out the window to experience the sinking feeling that accompanies watching the plane start taxiing *back* towards the gate, falling asleep for the hour and a forty five minute fight of the first leg.

I’m visiting an ODM – Original Device Manufacturer – today, an American front-end to a vast Chinese/Hong Kong manufacturing enterprise, the friendly, the kind of people you go to when you’ve got a couple of impossible problems, some hardware to solve them and a couple million dollars. I come bearing a requirements document and money, looking to make a deal: I need this thing instantiated, rezzed in, bits and atoms arranged in just the right way. And the price? Turns out, not so much. Not in the grand scheme of things. Or, let me put it this way: less than most advertising campaigns.

Finding I can’t do these early morning flights as easily anymore; not when we’re still co-sleeping and being kicked by a thrashing eighteen month old, not when it’s still 89 degrees fahrenheit / 31.5c at 8pm in the evening, not when I wake up at 2am in the morning anyway. Not quite tired to fall asleep properly on the planes, lucky enough to fly first class and stretch out just a little bit more.

Part of me thinks this isn’t so bad: leaving the house at 4am for a two and a half hour meeting, not getting home until 11pm. But, it was possible in a day trip. I’m not thinking about the carbon. There’ll be reckoning and an offsetting. Years like this make me wonder what my Dopplr report would look like.

1.0 Digital Watches

I had dinner with an old, old friend this weekend, and a number of things popped into place in my head as if they’d been subtly manipulated or chiropractied into place. (Actually, I wouldn’t know if they’d been chiropractied: being British, I’m somewhat suspicious of the practice[1] and have never had my back cracked; in America, they’re all over the place and everyone has a favourite one along with a favourite colour.)

Anyway: we were out for a family dinner with Sean Stewart, who’s responsible for most of the amazing things in my life. Stewart, along with a bunch of other talented people, was responsible for the Microsoft alternate reality game The Beast[2] set in the world of Steven Spielberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence[3], finishing off what Kubrick started based on the short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss[4].

We talked about a whole bunch of stuff, not least of where we thought the medium of storytelling was going and what we wanted to do with it next. One thing that Sean mentioned stuck with me, because it suddenly made something I *thought* I understand completely clear. He was talking about his grandparents, one of whom had been born in a covered wagon out in the midwest, at risk of attack, smack bang in the middle of Manifest Destiny happening around them.

You read about this every so often: grandparents who see close to a century’s worth of change, and upon examination, a lifetime’s worth of progress. It’s the sort of thing that fuels History in Pictures kinds of tweets and clickbait headlines: You Won’t Believe The Five Things This Grandmother Saw Invented In Her Lifetime.

So then you flip things around and think about what you’ll go through in your lifetime. Sean – being just a little bit older than me – told me a story about reminding his daughters that he was alive when digital watches came out and they were, as Douglas Adams said, “a pretty neat thing”. And this guy is sitting opposite me at the table, explaining to me *why* digital watches are a pretty neat thing, because suddenly you have the time, on your wrist and: there’s no dials! No hands! Just the time, in numbers! I mean, that’s *crazy*.

And it was at that point that I finally understood what Adams meant; that when he said people thought digital watches were a neat idea, he didn’t mean in an abstract sense, he meant in a fundamental world-has-changed sense, the kind that I just wouldn’t be able to understand having had the luxury of being born in the late 70s, as a digital-watch-native.

In, I guess, the same way as you’d say: “hey, the internet: that’s a neat idea.”

Now, digital watches aren’t the kind of thing that are seen as heralding massive changes in worldwide productivity, enabling new kinds of commerce and allowing people to connect in ways that they’ve never done before. They’re pretty focussed on serving one particular need and I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to try, I could dig up “the watch industry is going to die!” proclamations from the requisite rentapundits of the day.

But I guess what I’m trying to capture is finally understanding an almost alien reaction to the nature of time changing, to it being productised and stuck on your wrist in digital form. As this electronic phenomena encroaching upon something that had been easily understood and made mechanical and understandable, into something where workings and display had been divorced, made into something other.

Sean’s point was: more digital watch moments will happen in our lifetimes. We will think of them as pretty neat, like Adams, but at the same time, the internet is young and we’re not late[5]. We are early, asking a sort of Fermi Paradox-esque question: where’s all the intelligent life on the internet? Oh, right: the internet is too young for there to be much intelligent life everywhere.

All being well, I have at least another fifty years in me – and that’s if things just stay the same and there are no significant advances in healthcare or anti-senescence drugs (for those who can afford them, of course).

There’s going to be a lot more digital watches.

[1] Chiropractors cause controversy
[2] The Beast (Wikipedia) and cloudmakers.org (there might be malware there. Sorry. I haven’t gotten round to cleaning up decade-old PHP code I didn’t write)
[3] Artificial Intelligence
[4] Supertoys Last All Summer Long
[5] You Are Not Late

2.0 Stay In Control

There’s two options: build on top, or build your own. There’s a list of things that I want to do, and it feels like it boils down to two ways to do them: the long, hard way, or taking a chance on a shortcut. The shortcut, of course, is the build-on-top platform way: taking advantage of someone else’s ecosystem when you want to make something big, with scale, that’s going to affect a lot of people. I say ecosystem, but it’s the corporate route – whether it’s with an ad agency or with a Google or Apple or whatever incumbent, it’s building on top of existing infrastructure, existing mechanisms, people. All that stuff, ready for you to make things with it.

When you want to put a dent in the world, sometimes you want to work with the people who’ve got the dent-making capability. In a way, that was the plan I had with Wieden+Kennedy: the chance to do big things on a massive scale with giant clients. For lots of different reasons, that proved to be difficult.

I have friends doing this now: the startup route instead of the Google route, and it’s the one that requires the patience and the doggedness, but I think that at this point in my life, after having seen how difficult it is to get things done in big places and seen the shape and size of those big places, well: why not try doing it the other way? Because – and this is me borrowing from the brain of my dinner companion from the other night again – institutions are built in the shape of things, in the service of things. Roofing tile manufacturers are in the business of making roofing tiles, not of roofing buildings or houses, so coming over to them and telling them that you can make wonderful fiberglass tiles that are going to be quicker and easier to use and last longer aren’t that much use to someone who’s happily making the ceramic kind.

One of the notes I received from a reader pointed out that my exasperation at the failure of companies – whether incumbents or not – to “get” digital, is invariably a failure of leadership followed up with a lack of management. The reason there aren’t any good external companies or agencies that can do this work – or *do* this work – for others is because that’s what the leadership are being paid to do in the first place. It’s a pretty depressing realisation that points to the potential mediocrity of everything that exists. Where’s all the good stuff? Oh right: because we’re mediocre. That feels like a terrible way to think.

And yet, if it’s too hard to get things done in the places that *do* have the infrastructure unless you have the patience and you have the political ability to work and pull strings – then what is your alternative if you have a burning desire to get a certain thing out into the world? The hard way: by yourself. But then, it feels like that is also a lot easier than ever, too.

3.0 Unreasonable Empathy

There’s the (probably) apocryphal story – that I don’t have a source for because I’m on a plane and the connectivity’s not that great – of Steve Jobs insisting on a particular requirement for a product and being told in no uncertain terms by some engineers that it just wasn’t possible, 100% no-can-do, to which Jobs’ response was: you’re fired, and I’m going to hire someone who can do it.

This is a bit of a short-circuit in my head if you’re following on with the whole empathy journey that I’m going on because on the one hand it requires a clear understanding of what the user/product needs are, and then an UNWAVERING DEDICATION TO THE CAUSE, which means – in this case – being a dick and firing people who won’t do what you’re asking them to. Of course, there’s a much more nuanced view of this tha-. Well. Is there? I mean, apparently you can’t make an iPod without breaking a few contracts. Of course, we know the rest of the story: it probably has something to do with finding Toshiba’s tiny hard drive and figuring out where to put it. Was that a firing offence?

You would see this thing that Jobs would do whenever an Apple product came out – he’d point out the people involved and say that they were in the hall today, that they’d worked incredibly hard and that he appreciated what they and their families had sacrificed. I’m not sure if I’m able to do that – if at this point, I’d rather that they were able to spend time with their families instead. The counter-argument, of course, is that their absence from their families helped produce the iPhone and the iPad and everything else that… what? Bring lots of joy to people in the world? Are demonstrably better than the competition?

I think if you temper the view, perhaps the word that I’m looking for is discipline. Discipline in terms of being able to produce clarity in what it is that you want to make – the discipline in research and testing and refinement to get the product right, but also discipline in not settling for anything that isn’t good enough. Essentially, hopefully you can be disciplined and not be a dick. That you can be principled and fair, but not unkind.

4.0 Odds

I’m pre-ordering a copy of the TBD Catalog[1] by the smart people over at the Near Future Laboratory[2]. In short, a Skymall that falls through from a hole in the future. Not the glossy corporate vision video future, but from the (I’m going to use that word again) mundane one, the one that’s an extrapolation from the world that has kitchen towel holders with built-in USB chargers (you know, the one that we live in right now). A bit like my brother’s A History of the Future in 100 Objects[3] only a bit more commerce-oriented (the Skymall reference is a good indication of tone) rather than pseudo-museum-exhibit.

Other bits: sure, sure – life that directly consumes electrons (as opposed to photons); possible New! Physics! in the Cannae/emDrive with a sort of reactionless microwave powered drive and the savvy taxicab operators in San Francisco working out that if they’re playing Uber at their own game on a more level playing field – ie not having to use medallioned vehicles – then they have a chance at winning or at least a much larger profit margin[4]. Powerloaders aren’t being used to build US Navy ships, but they are being used to make Maersk container ships, perhaps we should get Dan Williams to check them out[5]. Thinking about a Public Service Internet[6] and the next round of cultural institutions building out not physical infrastructure but digital infrastructure: who are our new Carnegies, Wellcomes and Smithsons?

[1] TBD Catalog
[2] Near Future Laboratory
[3] A History of the Future in 100 Objects
[4] Death of the taxi medallion: SF cab company ponders major change
[5] Robotic suit gives shipyard workers super strength
[6] PSI Force: Preaching the ‘Public Service Internet’

It’s been a long day. Read this and tell me how wrong or right I was, or just tell me something interesting. I’m going to pass out.