Episode One Hundred and Thirty: Seeing; Shallow; Better Taxis

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

This being Portland, there’s a lot of greenery around, so I’m in the kind of environment that (to my mind at least) prompts a bit of weirdness. Out in the back yard this morning, watering, looking at the plants and they do that *flip* in my head which means they suddenly look super alien. I mean, not just weird. I mean: holy crap, there are living things in my yard and they’ve got roots sucking up nutrients and you can see them stretching out, yearning, busy being phototropic and reaching for the sun, only don’t call it phototropism because that just makes it sound all clinical, because holy shit these things are *alive*. They’re gently swaying and they’ve evolved this green stuff in them that takes photons and grabs electrons and they get bigger. Just look at those leaves: soaking up all that electromagnetic radiation. Zoom out, then, do that Eames thing and pull out, slowly, then faster: this entire planet is covered in the stuff. Teeming with it. Carpeted, blanketed, almost like it’s been excreted all over the place. Creepy, crawly, oozing, undulating, dumb, smart, indifferent, just *living* and reacting and seeing.

But mainly, the plants freak me out.

Reading: Trees issue 3, Letter 44 issues 1 through 8.

1.0 Seeing

I have a confession to make: I don’t really read comics properly. I mean, I’ve been accused of not reading comics properly, mainly because one of the very first comics I read was Warren Ellis’ Orbiter and I finished it in like five minutes and my reaction was simultaneously a) mind blown; b) that’s it? That’s *IT*? I want more!

I think it was because I just *read*, instead of looked. I would say I’m the kind of reader who’s a skimmer – I like to take in the whole page and get the idea, and then move on to the next thing. So I’d feel like I understood the big details, but it would take me time, and I’d have to learn how to slow down and linger in each frame, taking a look at what was actually inside it, trying to understand it rather than relying on some sort of instantaneous grokkage. Sometimes it feels like this is a good ability: to look at something, some situation or scene or whatever and have some sort of unconscious feeling for what’s going on. But that’s looking at things through a good/bad filter, rather than just an ability filter. There’s undoubtedly stuff that I’m missing, stuff that I’m not seeing, because I’m not *seeing*. I think I’m better, now: or, rather, I’ve learned to slow down a bit more.

We went on a drive to the coast yesterday, breaking in the new car, jabbing amusedly at the navigation system, trying to figure out a way for it to not tell us when it thought there were traffic jams (there weren’t traffic jams). There’s a new soundtrack for driving now, the Automatic beeps when we hit about 70mph because it’s not “efficient” and we get docked Good Driving points from our score whenever we do that (or do a hard acceleration, or do a hard stop). But there are other dings and beeps and thrums now – not quite on the same level that we’re familiar with in the way that Geordi or Scotty can tell how healthy the warp intermix chamber is by the background noise, but starting to get there. Anyway: in the car, talking to a friend about the English, American and German school systems (now that we’re parents we’re conforming as hard as we can to stereotype) and I mentioned the Ed Catmull point about learning to draw being an incredibly useful skill outside of just the arts, because it teaches you to see *what’s really there*. Which strikes me as what I was missing before I’d learned to read comics – that I was just getting the idea, seeing what I thought was there – surface level understanding, useful and quick to be sure, but perhaps not uncovering anything deeper.

2.0 Shallow

Tim Carmody, guest-blogging for Jason Kottke this week, mentioned things-that-are-shallow[1] when pointing to Joanne McNeil’s Future of Birthdays[2]. He wrote that “Sometimes, our identity-obsessed web services are creepy because they know so much about us, and sometimes they’re creepy because they’re just so damned shallow.”

I’m trying to see if there’s a way out of this particular cul-de-sac, or if what McNeil mentioned is more-or-less inevitable. These days, it’s easy – well, easy enough: you just need to have the initial idea and make it easy for someone to copy, or for enough infrastructure to exist for the copy to be relatively trivial to implement – to imagine joining the pieces up to enable McNeil’s weary future. Just link up enough CRM databases, or pull in a Facebook auth, or even just *buy* the data, and then you have, as McNeil accurately points out, a reason (even though a flimsy, shallow one) to enable a “brand storytelling touchpoint” with a consumer. Sorry, a person.

Is there a bit of Prisoner’s Dilemma going on here? I liked to think that part of my job as a creative director was to stop things from happening as much as it was to find good things to happen. The perspective that I thought I brought to the job included “would anyone do this” but to also ask people “would *you* like this to happen to you?” and frequently, the answer would be: “well, no.”

The facetious part here is to quote Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Well, *sure* we could have the internet-enabled Tropicana carton wish you a happy birthday, and sure we *could* have the Starbucks barista wish you happy birthday as a surprise-and-delight moment without you telling him that it was your birthday. But, did we ever stop to think if we should?

Part of this is again is information asymmetry and lack of transparency and understanding about who knows what about you, where, and how they’re allowed to use it. But as much of it is in the hands of the people deciding, bluntly, that these are Good Things that should exist in the world. Or even, that they’re not even good things, but that they should exist in the first place. This is a co-operative situation, right? Just one happy birthday ruins it all, otherwise it’s a race to the bottom and before you know it, everything in McNeil’s universe is wishing you a happy birthday.

I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps it’s to imagine that whenever you’re thinking about doing something internet-of-thingsish with brands, you imagine that your idea is instead to isolate the DNA of a long-dead carnivorous species, PCR the hell out of it, mash it up with some amphibian DNA and then release it through every single carton of Yoplait yoghurt, directly into consumers’ fridges where it will burst forth in the night-time hours, hungry, and devour people in their sleep. “But wait!” you’ll exclaim, “we got a tonne of research saying that kids loved dinosaurs and that they’d love to play with them!” and then I’ll get to say, Dr. Ian Malcom-style: “Yeah, yeah, but you brand managers/creative technologists/startup entrepreneurs were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” And then, next time, maybe you’ll think “Yeah, you’re right, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to have surprise dinosaurs pop out of my phone as a surprise-and-delight moment” only it won’t be surprise dinosaurs, it’ll be a picture of a cat. Only it’ll be a picture of a cat popping up on your phone EVERY DAY FOR EVER.

In other words: the shallow is easy. It’s just going to get easier. There are more communications surfaces than ever before, and we’ve made it intentionally easy to link them together. In fact, as I write that last sentence, I wonder if I’m not instead bound for a lifetime on the Colonies, where I’ll rant and rave about the dangers of networked computer technology.

[1] The Future of Birthday, linked via Tim Carmody
[2] The Internet of Things Will Ruin Birthdays

3.0 Better Taxis

I wrote about this a little last episode (mistakenly titled episode 128, again), but it’s been lingering in my brain over the weekend. The thought collided with something that I saw in passing on Twitter – that the relentless othering of Silicon Valley and its stereotypically empathy-less driven entrepreneurs who’re gunning for Disruption for Disruption’s sake don’t understand the second-order impact of their actions. Or, are just going around creating theme parks for dinosaurs without a care in the world.

And yet.

If we’re to believe that technology is just something we use in service of a human goal, that it doesn’t really *want* anything because we disagree with Kevin Kelly about there being a mythical Technium that pervades the universe, that we’re tool-creators and tool-users, if we believe that it’s much better to engage with and try to understand the motivations of the people we disagree with rather than to just point and laugh at them, and to recognise that parts of what they’re doing is good and worthwhile…

Then services like Uber and Airbnb – whether you like it or not – are certainly satisfying a *need*. They wouldn’t be so successful otherwise. Sure, they might be *more* successful thanks to somewhat dodgy or unethical business practices, but the basic user experience of Uber – compared to getting a regular taxi – is, I think we can agree, *better*. There was a problem, or an opportunity, at least, and the founders set out to solve it. You can disagree with lots of other things like how they’re dealing with competition or the fact that Uber has now raised so much money that they can quite easily afford to undercut and price-out the competition until they have the market to themselves, and that they’re diverting money away from more community-focused endeavours. But: the experience from an end-user point of view is *better*. Same for Airbnb. Ish.

The existing taxi institutions – and they are institutions, ones that have been in place for a long time and have been a protected market, more or less – now have a tremendously uphill battle to just *equal* the user experience of Uber. They have to do it from behind, with less money, and with organisational drag. And probably with less zeal.

Part of this is the simple thing of *using technology to do the same business better*. You can do that the good way – by asking for permission, by working within the current system, by trying to change it – or you can do it the “bad” way, by which you work outside the system and try to force regulation in response, rather than proactively.

So this isn’t just about software eating the world: this is about the opportunity for software to eat the world and make it *better*. It applies equally to both side of the coin: there are, I’d argue, as many opportunities for technology and well-designed software in support of well-identified aims and goals, to disrupt the “union” experience and make better unions that serve their members than exist currently.

But, all of this requires clarity of purpose and to be able to translate that purpose into things: products, services, whatever, that are useful that help people do what they need to do. Whether that’s finding affordable travel accommodation, getting a car to get from one place to another, or reporting a flagrant workplace violation with evidence: these are all things that are *easier* to do than ever before, if you design the right software.

The capacity for this reinvention often exists inside organisations already, but there’s a gap in leadership or vision that is able to translate it into practical effect. Alinea identified that they wanted to try out a ticketing system to test a hunch that it would be better for them than straight phone reservations, and *the software didn’t exist*. It had to be made. Bespoke. Custom-built. No-one was going to do it for them. So they had to go out and do it. I would bet for most businesses, there are a bunch of internal systems, never mind customer-facing ones, that could instantly make your job *better* and easier and make it easier to do what needs to be done. Not just “more efficient”. Not just with the goal of being able to lay people off. But with the goal of achieving the aims of the organisation. Better healthcare? Better bill-paying for utilities? Better banking? It’s all possible.

OK! Monday down. And 130 episodes done! Send me notes, all the usual stuff.