Episode One Hundred and Thirty Nine: A Human Future; Something New; Unintentional Freemium

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Heading back to Portland. A morning full of meetings, a 3 hour flight with no seatback video, broken wifi and no charger so I can’t play Civilization V, instead finally getting around to watching the Veronica Mars movie (which, if I’m being perfectly honest, I had on in the background and glanced over at every now and then whilst playing Threes. Bad Kickstarter backer.)

I saw a machine today. It was a machine for hitting things really hard, for making them really cold, and then making them really hot. I went inside a room full of foam cones. I saw 3D printers and another thing I can’t remember the name of, but it did things to Ball Grid Arrays that I imagine Ball Grid Arrays feel quite strongly about. I saw racks with things in them and some were pointed out that cost about $80k. At least, they used to. They’re probably iPhones or something, now.

Reading: Coming Soon Enough: Six Tales of Technology’s Future (mainly because it has a new Egan short in it, but so far the Nancy Kress in it has been great, Brenda Cooper’s short about 3D printing and a Maker hit me in the feels because I’m a dad and the Geoffrey Landis was a bit obvious halfway through but still pleasant). I am patiently (well, I don’t really have a choice) for the MIT Tech Review’s new Science Fiction issue because the last one was ace.

1.0 A Human Future

Clearly, the Near Future Laboratory’s TBD Catalog[1] project has left some sort of mind-seed lurking in my head, because after having had the surprise opportunity to ride around in a $130k Tesla S today, I was thinking about the electric/self-driving car “experience”. (Apparently, the fully-loaded Tesla S drives well, but the interior isn’t as good as you’d expect for a $130k worth of car, but fine for $85k worth).

Anyway. In a world of algorithmic sameness (although I’ll come back and pick at that point, because it’s also demonstrably untrue), how do people start to stand out? Where, as they say, is the value-add? If we can all have super-efficient cars that drive perfectly and fridges that order everything when they’re supposed to, how can we re-individualise ourselves when we’ve optimised away human error?

This line of thinking ultimately exposed itself in a bunch of silly tweets, because me. So you get things like:

“Personalise your new car by downloading a DrivePack®! Make sure your car stands out from the pack! Distinctive drive styles available! Our algorithms recreate the feeling of Real Human® driving, incorporating proprietary, patent-pending features like JitterAcceleration®, LoopAround RouteFinder® and SuddenBrake®, without any of the danger of a human driver.

Want even more? Get a DrivePersonality®! With packs like SundayDriver® for the slow and sure-but-steady GrandMotherDriver® experience, or with our exclusive partnership with BBC Worldwide, try The Stig® for only $199 and bring an authentic racing driving experience to your Tesla series vehicle.”

Or, you know, Internet Fridges[2], because they’re a thing:

“Tim Ferris brings you SophistactedBatchelor® in an exclusive partnership with Electrolux. Make sure your fridge is always stocked with an impressive selection of groceries from our partners at Google Shopping. Never be caught with an unstocked fridge full of on-trend ingredients when you’re cooking to impress your date.”

Or the other way around:

“Samsung is pleased to announce EatLocal®, a new ordering service with Samsung AllDeliver for SGH-9000 A-series model refrigerators for the eco-conscious. Auto-stock your fridge with sustainable, local produce and earn Samsung GreenPoints®.”

Or, more ways to reproduce – in an algorithmic way, of course – the human element that’s going to be optimised away. So:

“ScheduledLikeAHuman® is now available for Google Apps for Business! Do you miss that human scheduling touch when you use AutoSchedule? Our one-click trial install brings ScheduledLikeAHuman® features like MeetingRoomConflict® right into your enterprise – proven to increase serendipitous hallway conversations by at least 22%*. Dealing with a more experienced workforce that is still working through automation worries? DelayedReply® will help them through the transition by ensuring calendar requests are dealt with after a random time delay.

* monitoring and certification provided by employee Android devices enrolled in our ListenAndLearn® program.”

And there’s the personal productivity applications too, that can help you be More Human:

“YourMother® for Google Calendar will help you never miss a sibling’s birthday again, with integrated push notifications for all major wearable devices. And just in time for Cosmopolitan to tell us that the bumbling Englishman look is back, IMeantToDoThat® makes sure you’ll miss occasional important appointments that you can leverage for great SelfEfface® moments. Increase that DisorganisedAndVulnerable® emotional rating to make sure you get the guy or girl of your dreams!”

Algorithms to help us seem more human. That’s where it’s at. Algorithms that make roundrects. Algorithms that introduce noise because otherwise you wake up one morning and you look out the window and too many cars are moving in lockstep synch, in some sort of undulating uncanny valley of motion.

[1] TBD Catalog
[2] Fuck Yeah Internet Fridges from the inestimable Mr. Roo Reynolds

2.0 Something New

Alice Bartlett has written a blog post[1] that is interesting not because it’s about her first six months at GDS (you can read pretty much Every Single Episode Ever of this newsletter if you want more nattering about the UK’s Government Digital Service), but because she writes honestly about what it’s like to start a new job in a large organisation. It’s terrifying. Or, at least, I can relate.

When I started at Wieden+Kennedy – both times, in London and in Portland – one of the first things I did was make myself do a big talk to the entire office introducing myself. Partly because they were both the biggest places I had worked at the time – the London office was probably around 300 people (maybe? I might be misremembering – it was at the height of the Nokia account and they had the building across the street in Hanbury St, too) and Portland was probably around 600 when I joined. It helps that I like public speaking (apart from the whole period of time before the actual public speaking) and that I get a kick out of it, but part of the whole thing was not disappearing.

Unlike Alice, though, I had the luxury of being able to make a virtue of my imposter syndrome. I would walk into meetings and say: “So, I’m new and I don’t know anything about advertising. Why are we doing this?” and not have to worry about any significant fallout. I’m pretty sure I was still acting that way when I left, to be honest.

It’s worth remembering what it’s like being a new person in a new environment. I took Mr. Loosemore to task for him saying that GDS’ “onboarding process” was “sub-optimal” but only because he had slipped into jargon: as GDS grows, it’ll be more important to work out what that first week is like and make it easier to – I was going to say fit in, but I think I mean something more along the lines of a welcoming, non-threatening environment.

[1] Six Months at GDS by Alice Bartlett

3.0 Unintentional Freemium

I fly a reasonable amount (OK, probably quite a bit compared to the vast majority of people); enough that I’m the kind of person that Delta invites to participate in the airline end of something the US Transportation Security Administration calls Pre – a sort of pre-check security whitelist of people who don’t have to go through the tedious security procedure of taking off belt, shoes, taking their laptop out, displaying their liquids in public, all that sort of stuff. If you do fly a reasonable amount, it’s enough of an upgrade in terms of what it’s like to go through security that it makes the whole endeavour almost feel civilised (you also don’t have to go through backscatter/millimeter wave scanning, for starters, and just go through a metal detector).

It’s also the kind of thing that after a while, you miss when you don’t get it (it’s not a sure-fire thing that you always get Pre when you’re doing it through an airline program), so it’s interesting to start seeing signs around the Pre area saying that you can sign up and enroll for permanent Pre status.

Of course, at $85 a pop, it’s hardly a revenue generating thing for the US government – more that it allows them to not have to employ even more TSA agents, but I thought it amusing to apply the Valley terminology of growth hacking and conversion rates to something like a security screening process. The airline frequent flyer version of TSA is, of course, a freemium gimmick. Get it sometimes, on a somewhat random basis, and provide an upsell.

Signing off – have a good weekend.