Episode One Hundred and Thirty Three: Another Way; Bottom-Up; Oh, Is That The Time

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m stressed out: I have a number of phone calls to make and they’re all to do with the administrivia of life. Only, they’re not administrivia. They’re all fairly fundamental building blocks that require human intervention, they’ve thrown up exception flags that need to be caught, examined and dealt with. There is no longer any delegation, no more smooth operation, no 5-by-5, business-as-usual, all-systems-nominal. No, these are silently escalating alarms, like a Verizon account that mysteriously had its e-billing email address set to vz@vzw.com, resulting in no e-bills being sent, no notifications until a surprise message saying we’re behind. Or joint bank accounts that aren’t actually joint.

“We all have to do things we don’t want to do,” my parents would say. Well, I take a look at all those systems and quite honestly I pout the fuck out at them, and say this: these things I have to do right now? These things are because those systems are *badly designed* by people who don’t give a shit. *I* have to do these things, because other people didn’t care.

Currently: Double Bacon Lettuce Tomato and Avocado with Fries, but devouring Peter Watts’ latest short, The Colonel[1], in advance of Echopraxia coming out in August.

[1] The Colonel

1.0 Another Way

I was taken to task (in the nicest possible way) by Tom Coates in response to the second part of yesterday’s newsletter. He wrote a long and involved reply that helped clarify what I was thinking about, and also issued a challenge of sorts – that it’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and critique what’s coming out of the Valley and what’s being built with technology in general, but it’s much more valuable to actually do something about it. Whether it’s talking about what we could have instead, dreaming about it, evangelizing it or even building it, if we have a problem with the status quo, then we have a responsibility to not only question it, but to also show an alternative. Which point seems entirely fair to me.

But first, some clarification.

I do believe that the internet, or whatever it evolves into, will be seen as the equivalent of electricity in terms of a world-changing invention. It’s difficult to just say “internet”, but at the moment, it feels like the best thing we have: the one network, that all the other networks access, that anyone in the world is able to access. And sure, not everyone in the world can access it right now, not affordably, at least, but the point is that it’s a common standard. It’s a communications protocol that we all agree on, and that rebalances and democratises the flow of information.

Perhaps it’s because some of the killer-apps of electricity made an immediate difference, like lighting and heating. And that the flow of usefulness-to-the-ordinary-person was a bit inverted with computing and the internet. But I can easily find the counter-indication in that technology has always been expensive and slow to spread at first, and that we can be pleased that, if anything, the internet’s spread has been faster compared to other enabling platforms before it.

In terms of “things enabled by the internet that made a real difference to peoples lives”, it seems fair to be able to point to applications and services like Citymapper and the It Gets Better project. In the case of the former, a reader who’s been involved in public transport information better makes a persuasive case that mobile technology *has* made public transport more accessible. Part of this is me being unfair and not being clear in the criteria upon which I’m critiquing “technology”. It was engineering that gave us the engine and the car that gave us buses, political will that gave us public transport, and now software services that make that public transport easier to use. I have my own anecdata: my wife and I are much more likely to use public transport in Portland now that there’s a way to buy tickets straight from your phone, integrated with a route planning app. And when we lived in London, we made great use of apps like London Tube Deluxe by Malcolm Barclay, in the pre-Citymapper days, that would help you work out how to get from where you were, to where you needed to be.

So in my mind, the distinction is this: public transport in general has an accessibility problem (and I’m speaking with an American perspective in mind here) that feels like it’s more political than technological. My thoroughly uneducated view (that I would be entirely happy to have disproved by data) is that by definition, improved access to services through technology like smartphones serves only people with smartphones, and those groups of people may not be those most in need of assistance. That said, if your goal is “get more people to use public transport”, then more people is more people, whether they’re middle class or classed as in poverty.

If anything, this feels like early technology leaking through, again: at the dispersal edge of a new way of being. I’m lucky in that I know a number of people who actively attempt to mould their environment through their knowledge of and mastery of technology: so if that means that they construct ambient, pleasant displays that show the distribution of pay-per-minute car rental, public transport[1] or build maps that show whether there are rental bikes available nearby[2]. Again, though, this feels like a luxury: for people who can afford, or are able to ask for, the flexibility in time and transport, to be able to choose different options.

The other way feels like something a bit like this: yes, the experimenting at the high-end, because when you’ve got the time to think about what things might be like, you might stumble across other ways of doing things.

I remember seeing, *years ago*, a service called Mapumental[3] that at the time had been funded by 4IP, the UK broadcaster Channel 4’s innovation arm aimed as yet another attempt for a legacy broadcaster to rediscover relevancy in a digital communications age (tellingly, 4IP was run by Tom Loosemoore, now at the UK’s Government Digital Service). Mapumental created travel time maps: it showed you, for any given destination, all the places that satisfied a user-supplied travel time. In other words: if I work here, where can I live if I only want a 45 minute commute?

This type of civic information is really useful: it’s useful for city planners, it’s useful for citizens, it’s useful for employers. And yet it feels like it’s secreted away, that it’s still hard to find or understand what a neighborhood walk-score is, or that it’s difficult to find out about good schools or doctors and so on.

I think what I’m getting at is: what can we build, using the web of data that we have, that solves little problems at a time for people. And when I’m talking about solving problems, I’m talking about making things easier, and getting-the-job-done, and not in a displacement kind of way. I’ll give you an example.

On the one hand, the internet and its related technology makes it easy (ish) for me to find out about all the different health plans available to me. But it doesn’t make it any easier to choose or to go through the entire process. There’s a multitude of storefronts and what that can result in – for anything where there’s a profusion of choice – is confusion and paralysis. I might be talking from overly personal experience here, but *that’s not helpful*. It’s not helping me get the job done: what I need is health insurance, and I need to know that I’m getting a good deal. If what that means is I then need to spend a few hours researching and have the burden fall on me, it hasn’t necessarily felt like a net benefit.

So imagine, instead, something like customer service for health insurance, or when you’re calling a hotel or an airline, or a government agency and the service delivered a bit like Amazon’s Mayday, instead. Sure, you need to “call” from some sort of computing device that’s connected to the internet. But instead of just having a voice conversation, you’re able to be shown different options and show that you understand: we seem to be in a weird binary state of either telephone service or web self-service. And in the latter case, sure, sometimes we have “agents” available for online chat, but more often than not we suspect they’re bots, or people working from very badly defined scripts such that they might as well be bots.

[1] The Panic Status Board: 2013 Edition
[2] Homesense Bikemap
[3] Mapumental

2.0 Bottom-Up

America feels like it solves its problems differently. It’s a cultural thing: I can’t remember where I read it, but you’re imbued with capitalism here. The Portland Children’s Museum has a play supermarket where our son can wander around and buy things, a working checkout scanner, everything you’d expect, plus fake produce and products everywhere, plus little carts. I’m singling out, of course: they also have a veterinary hospital with adorable plush animals in their little compartments ready to be looked after by young kids, toddler play areas and a whole section around bikes. Because Portland.

Anyway. Lemonade stands. Yard sales. Making a buck, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, second jobs, eBaying, airbnb, Uber, working hard and getting on: that’s the American way. Finding a way to get that money in. So it feels like a particularly American response to the situation many Americans find themselves in with regard to healthcare is to, well, organise in a pseudo-capitalist way. In other words: you might have noticed all of the crowdfunding campaigns for cancer treatment or other medical treatment lately.

It plays out like this: someone you know, or someone who’s a friend of a friend, has gotten ill. They don’t have insurance, or – and this, to some Western Europeans might feel like a kicker – they *have* insurance, but they can’t afford the bills. Maybe it was a tumour found too late. Maybe it was a traffic accident; they’re a cyclist and got hit by a car in a hit-and-run. But the primary breadwinner has probably been taken out of commission and now the family needs some help. So enter the crowdfunding network. Family, friends, anyone who’s anyone compassionate: please donate to help Jason or Amy with their medical costs. And sometimes it’s not just medical costs: it’s lending a car, or picking up groceries or cooking a meal.

You don’t see this as much, I don’t think, in countries with single-payer, socialist-style healthcare. But, the argument goes, those countries maybe don’t have as good quality of care as the United States does. That’s beside the point.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: in the same way that the internet was designed to route around damage – to find a way to get that packet through to the right node if a particular route had failed – we’re learning to do the same with the software that we build. And the software that we build – the stuff that gets past the gate, that gets used, and starts to spread: those things are the things that show us where the problems are, where the gaps are and where the opportunities are.

So, crowdfunding: feeling like an American solution to an American problem – you still feel like you’re doing “work” in terms of promoting yourself and getting the message out there, even if the message is “give me money for this thing, please”.

On the one hand, that means you start to see things like The Humanity Box[1], an ad network just for crowdfunding peoples’ medical bills. Which, you know, just doesn’t make sense as a dirty hippy socialist, but hey, what’re you going to do. Or things like the Detroit Water Project[2].

But it’s this bottom-up stuff that *is* interesting. Sure, not all of it is, and some of it is just potato salad. But sometimes it feels like the right thing can come along and make a difference. So I take a look at other bottom-up networks that assume the presence of the internet. The phrase that’s still sticking in my mind is Michael Mann’s “we’re live in the exoskeleton of the internet” and there’s still so much scope for things that never *had* the opportunity to be the exoskeleton of information. I’m looking at things like freelancers’ unions, at community projects that also look like they can scale.

If anything, more technology in more peoples’ hands will increase their expectations (some might say that they’re already unrealistic). But, I hope people will ask: why does it have to be this way? You already have all this information about me. You already have my phone number. You already know this. You already know that. Why is it so hard?

[1] The Humanity Box
[2] The Detroit Water Project

3.0 Oh, Is That The Time

If you wear a watch, next time you’re with someone, glance at it. There’s a bit of a discussion going on about what Android Wear feels like, and what sort of space it opens up compared to pulling a phone out of your pocket. I suspect that we’re just talking about a difference of degree here: both pulling a phone out of your pocket and glancing at your watch are signifiers that you aren’t giving your companion your full attention. They might signal different things, and your companion might have different reactions to them, but I think the underlying cause is the same: your mind is wandering.

There’s a difference, though, and I’ve predictably got some anecdata. One of the things about a screen conneted to the internet is that *anything* could be on it. You literally have no idea what someone is doing with one of those things. Could be fapping away to porn, could be editing a wikipedia article, could be replying to their parents, could be writing a breakup email, could be engaging with some particularly interesting branded content. Point is: screens, when you can’t see what’s on them, are opaque. This is a point of contention in our household, or it has been, at times in the past: my wife doesn’t know what I’m looking at, I don’t know what she’s looking at. Perhaps this is just a sign of mistrust and potential marital strife (trust me, it’s not as bad as it sounds), but there’s certainly a *lack of context*.

Watches, being single-purpose devices (so far), can be much more precise in terms of their social signifiers: you’re looking at them because you have a question about the time. You want to know how much you’ve got left, if you’re under, if you’re over, but it’s always about *time*.

But now, with Android Wear and the other things we’re going to have on our wrists, *precisely* because they have screens that offer a multitude of display options, they can be telling you *anything*. If I’m wearing Android Wear and I glance at my wrist, you don’t know if I’m checking to see if I’ve got time to allow our meeting to run over if I’m enjoying the conversation or if Google Now has just popped up a notification telling me I’d better leave now if I want to get home for my usual time because the traffic’s bad. Or if UPS has delivered my package. Or if my boarding pass has just appeared. Or if my wife’s been trying to get hold of me.

You just don’t know. It’s a screen, connected to the internet, and a single-purpose device that has been confined in terms of communicating its intent and context has now exploded in possibility space to be able to notify its wearer about *anything*. The companion is now left to wonder: what could this be? Could it be an in-game notification from Ingress, saying that there’s an open XM node nearby? Could there perhaps be a special offer on a new Stephenie Meyer collection on Google Play? Who knows?

So it’s not that a wrist-observation is unobtrusive. It’s that it could mean anything now. And meaning anything means uncertainty, which means stress.

Of course, I could be talking out of my arse: I don’t have Android Wear and I haven’t tried it. But if anyone at Google wants to chuck me one to play with…

Signing off until tomorrow, and send me notes, because I read them.