Episode One Hundred: Taking Stock; And The New

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s a nice sunny day back in Portland, Oregon and I’m sat in Kenny and Zuke’s about to devour an meatball sub. I took my son out to the library for storytime and we had a funtimes sticking things to the window and generally walking around (he walks now! It happened a mere half hour after getting home fro my trip) spinning spinning things. And then one of those drives home where you kind of have to drive aimlessly, but with the purpose of trying to get him to sleep, all the while having your movements be a) narrated by Google Maps and b) tracked by Automatic and Moves and everything else that is watching my location data, squiggling all around Portland like a haphazard toddler with a bottle of ketchup.

1.0 Taking Stock


Ninety-nine episodes. One hundred and eight seven thousand, three hundred and fifty five words. One of the side effects about this particular project (and if any of you are nervous that hitting this milestone is an opportunity for me to stop: it isn’t, I’m going to keep going, so you can calm down) was that because it was a stream-of-conciousness just-sit-down-and-write deal, I’ve got the opportunity to go back and interrogate it to find out, well, what I’m interested in. Because the things that I find interesting enough to write a couple thousand a words about a day are, presumably, the things I’m actually interested in and have an opinion about.

With that in mind, here are some themes (and some archive links) to the things I’ve been writing about, as well as a pseudo writer’s commentary. It’s not necessarily a best-of, more of a “hmmm”.

1.1 The Californian Ideology

It took a while, but one of the early themes that emerged was that of the Californian Ideology. That phrase has become a sort of short-hand for me to take a critical look at what’s coming out of the west coast of the USA (and what that west coast is inspiring in the rest of the world). It’s a conflicting experience for me, because I genuinely believe in the power of technology to enhance the human experience and to pull everyone, not just some people, up to a humane standard of living. But there’s a particular heady mix that goes into the Ideology: one of libertarianism, of the power of the algorithm and an almost-blind belief in a purity of an algorithm, of the maths that goes into it, of the fact that it’s executed in and on a machine substrate that renders the algorithm untouchable. But the algorithms we design reflect our intentions, our beliefs and our predispositions. We’re learning so much about how our cognitive architecture functions – how our brains work, the hacks that evolution “installed” in us that are essentially zero-day back-door unpatched vulnerabilties – that I feel like someone does need to be critical about all the ways software is going to eat the world. Because software is undeniably eating the world, and it doesn’t need to eat it in a particular way. It can disrupt and obsolete the world, and most certainly will, but one of the questions we should be asking is: to what end?

This isn’t to say that we should ask these questions to impede progress just as a matter of course: just that if we’re doing these things anyway, we should also (because we *do* have the ability to) feel able to examine the long term consequences and ask: is this what we want?

The first mention of the Californian Ideology was way back in episode twenty eight.

On humane technology, and whether the jobs are really going away, in episode thirty five. And later on, I’d have tremendous fun coming up with the phrase “terraforming for capitalism“.

I’d go on to explore the idea of the jobs going away when thinking more about what’s called the sharing economy in “A Symptom Masquerading As Disruption” and its followup.

1.2 Empathy

Which kind of led to another obsession of mine, that of empathy in technology. This particular thread developed out of watching pretty much all of my friends in the UK get sucked into the Government Digital Service and its excellent work in rebuilding government services for a digital age. There’s a lot to unpack in there, but essentially one of the things that struck me was a friend saying that they weren’t necessarily doing new things, they just finally had the permission and the ability to do the things that they knew had to be done, but that were hard and difficult.

What’s hard and difficult, of course, is understanding your audience and delivering what they need. In the case of government, this is clearer cut: you have ministers that set policies that need to be enacted and delivered. Quite unsurprisingly, there’s a disconnect at the delivery level, and the fact that there’s such a disconnect between stating a policy and delivering it is part of the reason why there’s a problem with governance in the first place (from my ex-agency hat side, I can clearly see the difference between just *saying* something and not *doing* that thing, and that’s one of the places where it doesn’t matter a jot what kind of communications you’ve got or how many Lions it’s won, because if that’s not backed up by action and fulfillment, then in the long term, what’s the point? Other than winning a bunch of Lions, I suppose, and if that’s all you’re in it for then, er, maybe find something else to do?)

This act of looking at empathy would turn out to cut across pretty much everything I’d write about.

There was the idea that, in this day and age, and the hands-down *ease* of putting together a web service, that *not doing one* (ie requiring people to opt out of a policy decision through writing a letter and mailing/posting it to a PO box somewhere and not receiving a response instead of a simple web-based opt-out) smacked of selfishness and pure *lack* of empathy for the userbase/audience in “Not Trying Is A Signal“.

There was the tone-of-voice and the way that the Heartbleed vulnerability was communicated by various services to their users. And the counter-example, of those organisations (banks and so on) that *didn’t* say anything about Heartbleed, despite it being a security issue that had hit mainstream understanding, in “Sharing Heartbleed“.

And then there was the duo of posts about the role of empathy in organisations, first with “Chief Empathy Officer” and then the subsequent clarification that I didn’t mean anyone should actually create the office of Chief Empathy Officer because, of course, such a responsibility should be devolved to *everyone* and be everyone’s responsibility, in “We Have Always Been At War“.

The issue of empathy would come back again in a series of posts about the internet of things. First in “I Sense Feelings, Captain” where I worried about the prospect of sociopathic corporations extended physical tendrils into our homes through internet connected objects, and then in my first and second episodes from the O’Reilly Solid conference.

1.3 Me

I’ve written a fair bit, about my depression. I’m not going to re-link to it: it’s more for me than it is for you, and it’s more there for historial record. What I will link to, though, are the episodes that I wrote in response to a prompt from Robin Sloan: he wanted me to write about something that had nothing to do with technology or its effect on culture or the economy. In his words, he described it (before the fact, rather flatteringly) as “one of those runs in X-Men comics where Professor X is in a coma or something, so someone else has to lead the team for a while, and it was always interesting to see what happened ;-)”.

And in response to those, I wrote three episodes of which I remain inordinately proud of.

The first, “Different“, was about my experience growing up as a first generation British-born immigrant to Hong Kong Chinese parents. It’s not something that I really talk about, and my ethnicity and cultural background aren’t really things that rear their heads until, well, they kind of stick out like a sore thumb. I get my fair share of “Where are you from?” questions to which various answers don’t satisfy until I finally relent and say “My parents are Chinese and they moved to Britain in the 70s, where I was born”. But it was the response to the episode that was the most emotional to me, that showed that there were others who undoubtedly went through that same experience, but also where I could start to understand that whilst for me it may have felt like I never fit in, for others, they could be jealous of my otherness.

The second, “This is a story about a brain and its hands” was, I suppose, again a thinly veiled piece of writing that took a fairly plain speaking look at what it felt like when I looked inside my head. And again, I was struck by the people who wrote back to say that it was something that had resonated strongly with them and that they didn’t know there were other people out there like that.

The third, and last, “Zero” was of course about my experiences in becoming a father for the first time.

1.4 The Quantified Self

And not just the quantified self, really, but mainly armchair quarterbacking about product and service design, and taking pot-shots at the more-or-less abysmal state of affairs in the quantified self space.

I’ve written before about wearables: there’s the piece I originally published on my blog, “Myself, Quantified“, and the much better version over at Domus, “Fitness by Design“.

One of the early episodes about wearables, though, was “Wearable Reckons“, but one of the other episodes that I liked was “I Miss Dopplr“, where I would rip into the also abysmal state of information visualization and the preoccupation with the activity trackers and wearable manufacturers to assume that everyone would like to see a dashboard. I’d come back to that in episode ninety three in the “Dubya Dubya Dee Cee” section:

“The other way around is: man, you know how I feel about dashboards. Too much information that I don’t care about, that I don’t need to see. Honestly, if the quantified self people went and designed a car you’d never get around to driving it because you’d spend the whole time looking at graphs of data over time like, ooh, isn’t piston number one doing well, see how its performance has been doing over the last six months when: I DON’T CARE, I JUST WANT THE ENGINE TO START.”

1.5 A Failure To Organize

Obviously what I should do is spend the time to properly categorise all of my previous episodes and then write the rest of this section with a greater sense of organisation than what you’re about to experience. But I’m not going to, because this is my letter and I’m just going to list some of my favourite bits instead.

I have an on-going project where I’m re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and taking it apart. You can get all of those at:

I was very pleased with the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and technology moving down the pyramid, starting at the top in the 70s and then finally getting nearer to the base of the stack in the present in the Internet of Safety.

And also the idea of a sustainable web, and not a boom-bust web, given the web of obligations and issues of disposal (and retention) of user data:

Then there’s the fact that every now and then I’d fixate on Star Trek: The Next Generation and pick apart its universe based on the dominant mobile computing and app-distribution method of the day:

2.0 And The New

Enough of looking back. Here’s some of what’s new:

Avery Edison also wrote a piece about Her’s Samantha[1] and how her love is a literally unimaginable on the human scale tragedy.

Mat Honan wrote about how notifications are about to rule the smartphone interface[2] which merely seems to be the latest move in the Red-Queen-Race to capture and act upon our limited capacity for attention. In other words: the notification area is a free-for-all space (ish, of course) for the display of (ostensibly) timely and relevant information to the user. I’ve no doubt that this is going to be very useful and that notifications are about to rule the smartphone interface *for the next period* but this strikes me as another hurdle that we’re going to have to deal with in terms of: what’s relevant, what’s timely and what’s actionable. The promise of course is that we’re now able to anticipate and accurately model what’s relevant, timely and actionable and the proof will be in those applications that are able to “best” (for certain values of best, obviously) deal with what should be there.

Again, this should be a differentiating moment for Apple and Google: I would expect (but given the recent WWDC, am prepared to be proven wrong) that Apple are going to have a strong point of view in terms of what a “good” notification extension is going to be and the kind that they will approve and thus curate. It’s not in Apple’s interest (or Google’s, arguably) for people to associate their device with something that is incessantly *annoying*.

[1] http://bygonebureau.com/2014/02/03/were-leaving/

[2] http://www.wired.com/2014/06/smartphone-notifications/

So that’s it. One hundred.

A bit of a look back and a bit of a regular look at now.

And now I’m going to go and get ready for a phone call.

Best, and do send those lovely notes,