Episode Three: Happy Birthday and Connections

by danhon

1. Happy Birthday, Macintosh

In case you missed it, Friday 24th January was the 30th Anniversary[1] of the Apple Mac. Apple celebrated with more of a new direction for what they’re doing on the web with what could only really be described as a classic celebration of thirty years of what kicked off the personal in personal computer. Between last year’s Mac Pro site[2], the recent Your Verse[3] iPad Air campaign, it looks like Apple is taking its presence on the web, if not a lot more seriously, but realizing that it can actually have one.

The 30th Anniversary celebration is not so much product marketing as brand celebration, and Apple taking advantage of the quite frankly sickening amount of traffic and attention their website gets is a marked shift in direction, whether or not in your armchair reckoning of ‘what Jobs would have done’ pre-Jobs-era Apple would have looked backward to celebrate the Mac at all. Are there any other companies commanding as much attention and traffic as Apple with their web presence that are singularly missing such opportunities to be doing, well, something?

[1] http://www.apple.com/30-years/
[2] http://www.apple.com/mac-pro/
[3] https://www.apple.com/your-verse/

2. Newsletters Are The New… What?

After yet another exhortation to my followers on Twitter to subscribe to this newsletter, an interesting exchange[1] with Matt Haughey, Alexis Madrigal and Robin Sloan about whether newsletters are now a Thing, and what it is about them that makes them interesting again.

At this point you’d think people who’ve been on the web and thinking about it for so long should know better, but it turns out that the medium does matter, and it keeps reminding us. Newsletters aren’t the web. They’re not apps. They’re mobile in the way that email is. They’re run on the ur-social platform of the internet, email, (we’ll gloss over fingers and .plan files and MUDs and talk commands) and yet the newsletter feels as if it’s being rediscovered, and perhaps it’s because they fill another niche of connection.

We know the internet connects. It’s what it does, it’s what designed for. An network of networks. And lately, it’s been great at one to many broadcast media that amplify our ability to connect with a large number of people. As if a bunch of engineers looked at our brains and said: you know what would be great? If we hacked away the Dunbar number as a constraint on the number of social connections we’re able to maintain. And thus Facebook’s many-weak-ties.

But email feels like it fills this niche of a particular type of connecting. Opt-in with pseudo-verifiable identity makes it different from publishing on a blog, essentially into the ether (even when you’re able to track some sort of audience statistics with the inevitable Google Analytics and RSS stats).

Newsletters – when you know, roughly, who you’re writing to, or the size of the audience that you’re writing to – feel more like an intimate internet, a one-to-small, rather than, at least, in my case, a Twitter audience of one-to-thousands. Even though I’m not necessarily expecting a reply, it feels more like I’m talking to a *you* instead of to a *them*. So that’s perhaps why newsletters are coming back. Tools like Facebook and Twitter have allowed us to aggregate a large number of weak ties we either follow or broadcast to, but we still have a human need to communicate with, say, up to one hundred and fifty people.

In any case, an aspect of the email newsletter other than the dynamic of its reach is the fact that it is a differently opinionated medium than the ones we’re recently used. There is no character limit, so one is free to expound at length, and we know how great Twitter is for having arguments or trying to communicate a nuanced position. And although the text box I’m typing this into in practice supports rich elements, I don’t feel like I’m pressured to embed any imagery. It’s just communication through text and not, say, a single square-cropped filtered image, or an ephemeral, self-erasing image.

In any case, you should probably also subscribe to Roo Reynold’s Letter[2] and Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things.

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/426837136420384768
[2] Roo Reynold’s Letter: http://tinyletter.com/rooreynolds
[3] Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things: https://tinyletter.com/intriguingthings

3. More Greg Egan

I know I pimped Greg Egan last episode, but I’ve found another gem I’d love to share with you. In his 2013 short story In The Ruins[1] he spins a wonderful twist on the Kardashev Scale[2] of a civilization’s technological ability:

“I have no heroes,” Ghada said flatly. “But I can recognise a culture in decline when I see it. America is now what anthropologists call a Kardashian Type Three civilisation: more than fifty percent of GDP is in the attention economy.”

Kardashian reference! Attention economy reference! Culture in decline reference!

Expect the coinage to start turning up in discussions of the ad-funded startup-based new, new, new economy.

[1] In The Ruins: http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/MISC/RUINS/Ruins.html
[2] The Kardashev Scale: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale

4. Better Living Through Data

I wrote this morning, that “If the 1980s were DuPont’s through Better Living Through Chemistry, then the early C21st is Google’s through Better Living Through Data.”[1]

Monday was the News Cycle’s reaction to Google acquiring, for another $400m, “general-purpose learning algorithm” startup Deep Mind which might not mean anything to you, in which case the fact that it was founded by Demis Hassabis probably won’t mean anything to you either, Hassabis mainly being presented as a neuroscientist. But then you might remember his name as an ex-game designer from Peter Molyneux’s School for Gifted Children, or Bullfrog, where he started out as a level designer on horrifying-vision-of-future-to-come Syndicate, then co-designing Theme Park for which you probably remember the chain vomiting sounds. And if you really do remember your late 90s, early 00s video game history then you probably remember the hype around his game The Republic, around which he formed Elixir studios and exactly how he was going to simulate an entire country and you realize, wow, if this guy went back to school, studied neuroscience and came up with something, well, in the area of general-purpose learning algorithms worth $400m…

Because although I might have rather aggressively said that Google’s defining mission is the indexing of the world’s (but, let’s be honest here and accept that ‘the world’ is merely the public-friendly way of saying ‘the universe’) information, and making it available for free, I think, from the outside, that if it were possible to ascribe Google-as-an-entity motivations and beliefs, Google really does believe in better living through data. And that may well be the achilles heel of the West Coast mentality, that sufficiently-advanced-data-and-modelling-is-indistinguishable-from-living-in-a-magical-utopia. Data will make cars self-driving. Data will make diabetes manageable. Data will save lives. Data will liberate us from having to decide. Data will let you know what meals you should eat, how much more walking you should do, whether you should stand up or sit down for this meeting, which cellphone plan you should subscribe to.

You want that better life, don’t you? Well then take it. But the way you get that better life is through data.

What’s interesting to me is how this obsession came about, because there’s not much inspiration in the way of it. I can look at moving picture depictions of a science-fictional universe (and will scream the next time someone references the motion graphics from Stranger Than Fiction[2] because a) they’re over seven years old now, and b) really?) and acknowledge that we want to make all of the screens shiny and full of *stuff*, but no one has made an emotional case for the kind of dashboard I have no choice about receiving. In fact, for all its other faults in terms of a software ecosystem, perhaps the best thing about the Nike Fuelband is the on-device display and simple mechanic of red versus green. I refuse to believe that mass acceptance of quantified self devices will happen with them a) still being known as ‘quantified self devices’ and b) the current glut of info-dashboardery.

I just want to know if I can eat this cupcake or not. Not every single cupcake I’ve ever eaten, where I ate it, what they were made of and how my poop was that day.

[1] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/427822364504911872
[2] Stranger than Fiction: opening motion graphics – https://vimeo.com/3193923

That’s it for Episode 3.

I’m going to give myself a badge for getting three of these out and tease you with the thought that I’ve finally watched Spike Jonze’s Her and, fingers crossed, tomorrow’s episode will be full of spoiler-filled juiciness.