Things That Have Caught My Attention

Dan Hon's Newsletter

s4e05: I’m OK 

0.0 Station Ident

5:08pm on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. I am in San Francisco. I am not here for GDC, the Game Developers Conference. I used to come here for the Game Developers Conference and I haven’t been in a long time, and now I’m here and it’s by *accident*. I have not yet had time to see any of my friends (hi, friends!) who are here in town for industry shenanigans.

Instead, I’m here working on a project that I’m too tired to even come up with a SPECIAL CODENAME for that will impress you all, but the other thing that I’ve done is I have managed to finish A DIFFERENT THING that should fix SOME OTHER THING in mysterious, behind-the-curtain ways. SPECIAL CODENAME is also pretty interesting because it’s the first step in a BIG PLAN TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

It turns out that all you need to do is write things and treat them like SPECIAL CODENAME and then they start behaving just like SPECIAL CODENAME. I mean, even *I’m* impressed now (for small, low, easily satisfied values of “impressed” of course”).

1.0 I’m OK

So thanks to the stunning success of my accidental newsletter (subject: “you can'”), you can sign up for “I can”, an occasional letter of gentle affirmations.

For this, I’ll even break my rule of putting links in footnotes and make you a link:

Like this newsletter, I guess the point of “I can” is as much for me as it might be for you. Just writing them out should be helpful.

2.0 Grab Bag

It’s Monday, March 6, 2017 now. A DIFFERENT THING continues to be in progress, meanwhile SPECIAL CODENAME was finished, and those of you who’ve been paying attention might have figured out what SPECIAL CODENAME was in the meantime.

Some things:

First, via Twitter, Netflix is going to “trial technology that hands control to viewers”, which is an amusing way of missing the lede that Netflix is in the position it’s in right now precisely because as a video-on-demand platform, it *handed control to viewers*. No, that type of control isn’t enough! In a sort of all-computer-programs-eventually-read-email, apparently all TV producers and TV networks eventually decide that they need to figure out, Once And For All, how to properly implement branching narratives so they can be “interactive narratives”. The original source I had for this was The Daily Mail, but I’m not cruel and I don’t want to encourage them, so I’m going to link you to the USA Today coverage (marginally better, I suppose?) instead[0].

The announcement was made at Mobile World Congress, which at some point might just drop the Mobile from its name and just say World Congress because later generations will scratch their heads and wonder what Mobile means exactly.

The short of this is that branching narratives in media like television have historically turned out to be a) not very compelling to viewers (there’s a whole bunch (ie decades) of inertia in the medium of television/film/video being, well, linear), b) difficult to produce (think: first your job was to conceive of, script, produce and then edit *one* compelling linear narrative. Now you have to do n linear narratives and ideally *all* of them should be fulfilling – ie don’t do one “proper” ending and then a whole bunch of filler endings. In general, your audience is not dumb and won’t take that shit from you) c) expensive for little payoff (see (b)).

There are, it turns out, other ways of making interactive narratives. Arguably, one of the whole point about a narrative is that it’s linear in the first place! Anyway, perhaps we should try to solve this problem in text first (see: Bioware and others) before trying to solve it in one of the most expensive creative media ever conceived.

Maybe – just maybe – there’s a way of making this work. Other (good) people have tried and failed. So, I suppose I’m not entirely pouring cold water on it? I’m just skeptical that it’s a) a good idea, b) sustainable, c) other things, and that maybe Netflix should concentrate on the things that it’s already good at. Of course, this could *also* be an amusing strategic fakeout to get, I dunno, Amazon or HBO to spin into trying to do interactive telvision with branching narrative in order to compete with Netflix, who behind the scenes know that this is a fool’s errand.

I noted on Twitter, somewhat sarcastically, that Netflix’s greatest contribution to the medium of television (aside from letting the viewer choose what to watch), has been the implementation of next-episode-autoplay, which is about as far as you can get from “branching narrative” as you can get.

Second, Adrianne Jeffries wrote on The Outline about Google’s Featured Snippets, those one-box type answers that you get when “Google” “thinks” it can answer a search query. Sometimes those snippets are a) useful and b) easy to verify, like “when is mother’s day”[2], and sometimes they are an absolute tire fire, like “is Obama planning martial law”[3] which has since been updated to answer that no, he isn’t, and instead has a link to a news story about how Google used to say that *someone else* was saying yes, Obama was planning martial law.

This is what happens when the world gets to explore in the Valley’s murky grey area of “done is better than perfect”. On the one hand, many people now agree that a thing that exists is better than a thing that does not exist because it is attempting to be perfect. That is what the statement is about. It is about things like: you know, maybe Gmail being in beta (and sometimes falling over) is OK than Gmail not existing at all.

But! Clearly now we have “are false answers, quickly provided, assumed as authoritative, in an attempt to quickly provide access to information better than no answers at all”? And the answer is: lots of us, I think, in general, would prefer to have no false answers from an authoritative source.

This is what I imagined happened at Google: someone had the idea that hey, what if the search box didn’t just return links to web pages, but if it provided the actual *answer* to a query? And someone else said: yeah, okay, that sounds reasonable. And reasonably, they started out with things that could be found and, to a certain extent, verified, using the Knowledge Graph[4], a sort of semantic search. The useful thing to know here is that knowledge graph is one of the components that a bunch of people used to think was a pre-requisite for having a Turing-passing artificial intelligence. You’d need to ask an AI what colour the sky was, and the AI would need to “know” that the sky is blue. One attempt at doing this was/is a project called Cyc (as in Encyclopaedia) that a bunch of nerds like me like to check in now and then because it’s a very laborious, ground-up attempt for humans to document what “common sense” is[5].

Anyway. This is sort of doable for some things but as Jeffries’ article points out, is much harder to do for, well, harder things? That are harder to verify? Which leads me inevitably to The Hubris Of Silicon Valley.

It’s one thing of course for a search engine to answer someone’s query about, I don’t know, how many days there are in a year, it’s another for a search engine to authoritatively answer about other things in the world like, oh, I don’t know, “is Obama planning a coup”. The holes here are:

a) “organizing the world’s information” is a position like a) information is just information, it doesn’t have to be “true”, verifiable information, which is fair enough, but also more cynically, b) “Google is a search engine that organizes and provides access to the world’s information but makes no representations as to the veracity of any such linked information” which is what a lawyer would say these days to minimize liability and responsibility

b) truth is hard (let’s go coding and fix healthcare instead);

c) seriously though, Google’s responsibility only ends at providing a *link* to information and, er, links don’t constitute endorsement

Only *of course they do* because of their placement and because of what little we know about the architecture of our brains, inherited trust and because of how information is presented.

OK but! What if we’re just moving fast and breaking things! Clearly Google’s *intent* is that it would *prefer* to provide verified information. So for the moment, let’s provide *unverified* information that is picked based upon criteria that are useless for evaluting *veracity* for the answers to certain questions (at a base level: are things linking to other things), and let *humans* do what humans are good at, and have the humans report that the information we are preferentially highlighting is false.

The problem here of course is the labour asymmetry and the externalisation of results. *Probably* no, or a minimum (n < 100?) humans are involved in checking the answers to some of Google’s snippets before they go live. I suspect they are algorithmically determined, with minimal review. The burden for review falls upon the uncompensated users of the system: it is in the users’ interest (but not Google’s?) that the information provided is correct. There’s a difference in automatic, passive labor being involved in improving the information that Google provides (ie: the assumption that search results that are clicked on are ‘better’ and their trust improves’), but that goes out the window when a bad result is prioritized and shown to users. *Then* the review process is active and requires us as users to manually flag stuff. The steps to provide feedback on a Snippet are:

– click “Feedback”
– pick an option (This is helpful, Something is missing, Something is wrong, This isn’t useful)
– and a text field for any other constructive comments or abuse you’d like to hurl)

This is clearly Too Much Work to expect people to do, but the burden falls on people who, I don’t know, don’t like the fact that Google is/was automatically prioritizing a result that said – with Google’s implied backing – that yes, Obama was/is planning a coup.

“Ship it then fix it” as an attitude rapidly (and rightly) coming under more examination as the implications of *one* single platform making (unverified) representations about the world become clearer. For some people, those implications were super clear *before* they happened. I guess we’ll see what happens next.

[0] Report: Netflix wants you to choose alternative endings (warning: linear video about branching narratives).
[1] Google’s featured snippets are worse than fake news | The Outline
[2] when is mother’s day – Google Search
[3] is obama planning martial law – Google Search
[4] Knowledge Graph – Wikipedia
[5] ‎

OK, it’s 9:56am now and I have stuff to do. Have a good week and send notes or replies – I do like to get them.



s4e04: You can’t say no 

0.0 Station Ident

Yes, the blank newsletter episode was a mis-send. Sorry about that. I’ll blame a combination of the keyboard, a lack of coffee, not being awake and the default action being send, not cancel/save. Anyway.

9:50am on Monday, February 27 2017.

1.0 You can’t say no

I can’t point to the exact moment, but at some point after the second Internet boom, and definitely during the First Great Mobile App Explosion, it became increasingly clear that product managers and designers were getting very excited about things like cognitive psychology and persuasion. Here we are now in 2017, and it feels like it’s increasingly rare for an interaction with an app or website to let the user simply say: “no”.

There’s an easy reason for this because we like easy explanations: digital and interactive lets us measure things. We choose what we want to measure, and then we change things so that what we measure moves in the way we want it to move. Most of the things we’re concerned (as a species? As a post-capitalist neo-liberal society that’s optimized itself into rewarding and needing short-term gain?) about, we want to move Up and To The Right, which generally means that they’re increasing because we like numbers to get bigger. There is probably a cognitive psychology paper on why we like numbers to get bigger, along with a whole host of other papers that have failed to replicate the effect.


Because of this, because of things we *can* measure (and because of things we *can’t* measure or choose *not* to measure), it’s easy (I think!) for us to design ourselves and our artifacts into blind spots.

One easy example: mobile apps like it if you turn on notifications. By turning on notifications, that app has a chance to get your attention (which, we’re reminded, is increasingly the only thing we have left to choose what to do with) when you’re not using it. Everything wants your attention. Our wise and benificent leaders, those OS designers who hold more and more power over the interactions that we repeat every minute, every hour, every day, decided that maybe it’s not such a good idea to let apps send notifications to us by default. So they have to ask.

The polite way of asking, of course, is to a) ask nicely, and b) let the person you’re asking decline.

That won’t, and doesn’t, do, in today’s stupendously competitively landscape where if you write the wrong copy in your notification permission dialog you will literally lose your job, your healthcare, the respect of all your peers and the invitation to that conference you’ve been angling to speak at for so long and where you thought you might have a conference hook-up[0].

No, these days, everyone – your peers, your boss and your boss’s boss and those random people who’re going to shit all over your work on Dribble or Hacker News or Hey Let Me Just Slide Into Your Mentions – knows that you don’t get ahead by letting users say no. Your options, when you’ve written that dialog and when the user sees them are: “Sure!” and “Maybe later!”

I mean, the first designer who did this figured out (and presumably that their conversion and engagement rates went *way* up for the thing that was requested that resulted in “Sure!”. And other people noticed and then someone went and actually read a book about things that have happened in the past, and actually *read* it, not just read the link on Brain Pickings or just the first paragraph or even just the headline on Fast Company about how This Amazing Whatever Can X Your Y, and remembered: hey, there’s that sales and persuasion technique where you “get to yes” by literally denying the person you’re talking to the ability to say no.

Remember: we’re mute in modal dialogs. You don’t have a voice. You only have actions. You cannot say No. You can only choose “Maybe Later!”. If you’re lucky, your choice of Maybe Later comes with no additional emotional inflection, not even an exclamation mark or an emoji.

So. You can’t say no any more. You can’t be definitive. You can only say yes, or… maybe yes sometime in the future. Your only other actions are, maybe: delete the app? And you think to yourself, okay, I’m a bit annoyed that this stupid punk-ass app presumes to talk to me in this faux-friendly, fucking *cheeky* manner and I’m the one who’s paying something stupid like *a thousand dollars* and I own this goddamn phone (though the EFF and iFixIt will disagree because you’re not truly Free) and yes, maybe I didn’t pay for any of the labor that went into creating this app but really you’re going to sit there and *not let me say no*.

Well that feels like a bit of a shitty bargain, especially when everyone else is doing it to me.

It’s not like it’s easy to say no in the first place. But now, there’s a whole class of interactions that thanks to This One Easy Hack About Getting Your Users To Say Yes (Clue: It’s Called Denying Them The Ability To Say No), you… can’t say no anymore?

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound particularly healthy to me. It’s as if you’d get a Falling Down moment, but it’s that one person who hasn’t deleted Uber yet who finally gets one more request to, I don’t know, turn on location services for Uber otherwise Uber won’t deliver a zero-hours contract worker car within three minutes powered by software built in a misogynistic environment, and finally decides: *fuck this* and, I don’t know, bad things happen and the US executive and administration remains silently mum on someone being shot again.

If I were smarter and wittier, I’d come up with a better name for this than The Tragedy Of Our Psychological Commons.

It’s not in any app’s interest to be kind, because some other app is going to come in like a complete dick, shit all over you because we have brains that have a certain architecture and are susceptible to certain things and everything’s okay because for now everything’s going up and to the right until, well, we hit a wall.

I used to write a lot about empathy and software and how it frustrated me that technology wasn’t kinder. It still isn’t. Now I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder to say no to software. (Not that it was ever that easy, I suppose).

I suppose someone like Bogost will say, contra Kevin Kelly, is that technology does want to go up and to the right, and it will only go up and to the right for the tangible things it thinks it can measure. It can’t measure the multivariate toll on psyche and mental health of a gajillion interactions that slowly chip away at agency. Google Analytics doesn’t have a tab for that. We’re not interested in solving problems like that. We only measure what we want to measure, and we only create tools for the things that we’re incentivized to measure.

(In that respect, I’m impressed by the countries that have even thought about counting things like breast milk production in GDP. I mean, at this point in today’s newsletter you’d be surprised if I’m even happy with the prospect of GDP in the first place (hah! yes let’s just measure the number of dollars of things!) and yes, I suppose *a* measurement is better than *no* measurement — sometimes) but Jesus Christ.)

Anyway. I quipped on Twitter that it’d be nice to talk to a psychologist about current patterns in app design like the Pattern Of Not Letting Someone Say No and ask: hey, how many of these design patterns would be abusive behaviour in a human relationship? I leave it to the readers to speculate as to my position on this point.

OK. It’s 10:16am. I have like a billion things I have to do today, and some of them are super important and some of them are really really important like: how do you design an organization that can deliver the best healthcare for Californians.

(Note: not how do you *design and deliver* the best healthcare for Californians, but how do you set up the organization and make sure that organization can succeed when it’s embedded in… legacy management and management principles? An idle thought: I get invited in (deployed with prejudice, might be a better phrase) to “fix” legacy technology replacement and modernization projects, but it strikes me that legacy *organization* replacement and modernization doesn’t… get as much attention? Or it does and it’s just regular management consultancy and  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

[0] You know these things aren’t good, but you should also know you’re doing the best you can

Oh, and yes.

Thank you for all the notes about the inadvertent newsletter.

You can.



s4e04: You can’ 

s4e03: What next? 

0.0 Station Ident

I’m writing this around 2pm on Friday, 24th February when I’m supposed to be having lunch. On the one hand, this is good: eating lunch is good and writing is good. On the other hand: there are so many things that are not done and need to be done.On the final hand of course is the eventual recognition of am sort of deteriorating mental health over the last two months for which there are a number of causes, and it doesn’t really matter which one is more important than the other or which one I could have done something about: what’s done is done and, well, here we are, so let’s just take stock. It’s not a great place, especially not one which has been combined with getting over a shitty cold that came on a week ago.

There are some things that I’ve learned in the past that help. The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t feel like they will help now, but nonetheless, just writing them down and lip-reading the words, even if I don’t say them out loud, *does* something.

In group, they teach affirmations. Affirmations sound to people like me to be bullshit, the kind of magical thinking that standing in front of a mirror and saying “I’m Great!” makes you, well, feel great. But a point that I had to concede was that affirmations are merely repeated beliefs. Saying that you’re not good enough, or saying that you never get things done is as much an affirmation as saying that you’re worthy no matter what you do or, to put a more sharper edge on things, no matter what you make.

I suspect there are a bunch of people like me whom – for whatever reason – it’s hard to look at themselves in the mirror and say, with a straight face, that they love themselves, or that they are worthy, or that they don’t care about what other people think.

Anyway. Part of me knows that about 10 months ago, after repeating a whole bunch of statements to myself, they started to feel true, even I didn’t *think* they were true. And then a while after that, it didn’t even matter whether I *thought* they were true, because I just acted as if they were. Funny, that.

So, today, at 2:15pm? I’m just going to write down that today, I’m doing the best that I can.

Tomorrow can be another day.

1.0 Pull on a piece of string

I have realized that there’s a way of describing some of the work that I’ve been doing in California that shows a blind spot. Or, rather, that the way I’ve been approaching my work with California results in certain things happening.The problem I got presented with — help a department that’s in an agency improve the success of a particular technology project — was an opportunity to expose the environment. The artifact – a procurement document – was the best that could be produced in that environment. You pull the string on a procurement document, and if you’re being serious and if you have nothing to lose, you point to the territory and you say: this environment, this territory? Nothing can succeed here. Nothing will succeed here.

It doesn’t matter whether the environment was willed into being in a singular act or whether it accreted over time (say, thirty years worth of reactive policy and practices building up like some sort of regulatory ring of limescale scum in a student house bathtub), all that matters is that it’s there.

That environment, though, effectively implicates everyone who has a stake in that environment. On the one hand it doesn’t matter if you’re smack bang in the middle of Hills McMountainville, but it does matter if you’re the Chief Hill Officer.

In other words, it matters a Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer might not be historically responsible for the current topology of the landscape. But it should be in their power to declare (although not, strictly, politically correct) that the current topology is, more or less, bunk.

I get a lot of people saying that what’s happened in California with the creation of the Child Welfare Digital Service is a) incredibly impressive but simultaneously b) sounds deceptively easy, and what I think I have to underline is that the description was easy (do steps a, b and c), but the actual work involved was hard and difficult.

The politics were difficult.
Lining up all the stakeholders was difficult.
Getting the resources – people with the skills we needed – was difficult.
Getting the right people in the right room was difficult.
Persuading people that this was the right thing to do was difficult.
Breaking up the procurement document and choosing a place to start, with a rough idea of schedule was difficult.
Deciding what to focus on and what to ignore was difficult.
Deciding what needed to be done now, and what could be done later, was difficult.

The *easy* things were the big decisions.

The *hard* things were doing the work that put the big decisions into practice.

One of the reasons why all the above are hard to do is because the environment you’re trying to do them has been either implicitly or explicitly set up to *not do those things* because of policy and practice.

I started this out by saying that the type of problems I’d been working on, combined with the approaches I’ve been taking, had been inexorably moving toward certain shapes. The rough heuristic here is that if there’s a big government technology project, the first thing to do is to not do it the way you’d usually do a big government technology project, and that means needing to change the environment. The problem is, changing the environment for a big government technology project means you end up doing, well, megastructure engineering or terraforming for organizations.

Put it this way: you land on a planet that has hardly any free energy so the only type of life that can survive there is slow and large. The approach that I’m using right now is essentially nuking it so that quick, fast life can thrive, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument because you end up *nuking the entire planet*. Where a planet is a department or an agency, of course.

There is no “lab” here. And the struggle I’m dealing with is: how well do you want to solve this problem? Do you want to solve it properly, for ever? Does that inevitably, inexorably mean changing the entire organizational structure, and is the best way to do that top-down? Or, can you do it bottom-up? Can you start a couple cells and have them do a sort of reverse-takeover?

This is why I think innovation labs don’t work: they silo off the danger to the organization and they let all the different stuff happen elsewhere where they can’t affect the environment of the host organism. It’s as if you were able to deal with cancer by saying: okay cancer, come right in, you can have just my left foot, but I’m going to make sure you can’t get to the rest of my body.

In my naive understanding, when cancer wins, the host organism dies. You don’t just get big undifferentiated blobs of cancer or innovation. They don’t take over the organism in a useful parasitic way.

This isn’t to say that you can’t get good results by, say, embedding a small multi-disciplinary team inside a department and empowering them to get stuff done. But my worry is: so what? So they get some stuff done. Do you win the war? How do you get from that one small team and change the way *the entire department* works?

I’m more or less sure that at this stage of my so-called career, I haven’t seen any successful examples of cell or bottom-up based organizational change. They only ever come from the top. You can win small battles, but I worry about longevity.

What this says about government in the large doesn’t inspire me with confidence. At least, not in my lifetime.

On the contra, for what it’s worth, here’s an opportunity. Any time anyone’s going to upgrade or replace a legacy system and they’ve got money to do it (and in most government cases, it’s stupid money), the legacy system replacement is the best excuse you’ve got to do org and culture change.



s4e02: So, What’d I Miss? 

0.0 Station Ident

8:34pm, West Coast Time, in Portland, Oregon and listening to Oasis, of all things. I blame an ill-advised jaunt into 6Music earlier on in the day when, recovering from a cold that more-or-less knocked me out (I mean, it didn’t stop me from tweeting, did it) I was subjected to a documentary, of all things, on the musical genre known as Britpop.

Anyway. On with the show, and let’s just pretend that it’s entirely normal to be coming out of hiatus and sliding into your inbox like this.

1.0 Government Technology Procurement: The Procedural

No, seriously, this is what the first fifteen minutes of APB, a new show on Fox here in the US, looked like it could turn into. Spoilers: it doesn’t, of course, turn into that, it turns into something eminently more predictable. But! I can still take this greenlit tv show and connect it to contemporary events! How? Watch me!

APB is, according to the snippet of text that counts as advertising these days if you Google it, a television show about “A tech billionaire. A Chicago cop. Giving justice the reboot.” which I had heard literally nothing about whatsoever until my wife mentioned it to me while I was watching a completely *different* show (Powerless, DC’s show for NBC that’s a bit like Better Off Ted crossed with Community on Hulu).

Spoilers follow for a) the Fox show APB and more depressingly, b) probably events that will unfold during the course of 2017.

APB opens with about 30 seconds of what looks like a junior editor being told to put together some pre-roll that describes Stark Industries without paying money for any good footage. The footage includes: a rocket (SpaceX reference), “computer design” (with footage of a PCB and really, really slow electrons, which in itself is a significant technological achievement I suppose), “robotics” (with robots that literally look like they’re made out of Meccano) and then uh satellites and a bit with a face coming out of a vat of molten metal because HEY DID YOU GET THE REFERENCE TO TERMINATOR 2– Anyway, we interrupt this conceit and, er, cold-open-into-not-very-good-corporate-tech-brand-advertising[0] to… see the surprise! It’s just Gideon Reeves! A wunderkind who founded an amazing company when he was just 20 years old and really really is trying hard to be Tony Stark from Iron Man because he’s a) a West Coast Tech Dude; b) in a suit pitching people and c) trying really hard to emulate Tony Stark, I mean Robert Downey Jr.’s speech patterns. Like… this? You know? With a bit of a wry… pause, every now and then? And that kind of *intonation* that he has. Because he’s… smart.

Reeves has a pitch that he’d like us to see which is all about oil well fires and how we can’t just keep throwing dynamite at them because we are running out of Red Adairs who are willing to throw dynamite at them. Reeves likes to make his point in a very Tony Stark-esque way but instead of detonating missiles to explode impressively behind him, Reeves only has a tv pilot budget so he lights some small fires around his formerly rapt, now somewhat disturbed, audience. Reeves’ big idea is that he’s going to use *drones* to put out oil well fires using concussive charges. No-one in the audience has the thought to ask what *else* you might do with all those concussive charges, but hey, drones! The good news is that Reeves has a CTO (Ada! A woman! Do you get it? She’s a woman and she’s called Ada because Ada was a famous woman in technology and also has a programming language named after her) who will figure out all the details and she’s very excited about this by the way she brushes her hair and tries to obscure her face.

Anyway, we spend the next ten minutes getting to know our one black guy who’s going to get killed because of course someone has to get killed and the lead dude is a white guy, but hey, all we need to know is black dude is white guy’s best friend. Why does black dude get killed? Because selfish white dude wanted to stop to get a smoke. And how did we know black dude was going to get killed? Because black dude pointed out to the white dude that *obviously* this area was a super skeezy area to stop and get a smoke.

Needless to say this does not end well for black dude. I mean I guess it doesn’t end well for white dude either. Although black dude ultimately dies after being shot in the gut twice, white dude *did* get pistol-whipped and has a very traumatic experience with 911 emergency dispatch putting him on hold. Scene!

Next we see white dude – Reeves – in his bloody white undershirt, a nice band-aid on his forehead, looking very tired and doing a good job pretending to be shellshocked about death of best friend black dude. Reeves takes a look around the moodily lit precinct office and we see what he sees:

> Look

You are in a police precinct office. There is a typewriter nearby, which makes you sigh. Ask you ask about access to surveillance cameras and hairs or forensics and the police officer gives you excuses, you see an out-of-order photocopier, another officer making an exasperated phone call about faxing a request for information and two other police officers trying to find the right USB port on their computer.

OK, let me just say this was the most exciting point of the episode for me. As empathic female Latinx officer offers her condolences to Reeves (who spies the officer he was just talking to attempting to replace a toner cartridge in a printer), Reeves’ eyes get that faraway look of someone who…

… sees people just trying to do the best job that they can in a hostile technology procurement environment! I mean, if *only* everyone in this police precinct had access to the latest technology! They’re probably running on an ancient mainframe system! Why, I bet Mr. Reeves is about to storm into City Hall with a proposal to throw out the next procurement of an modernized and replacement Chicago Police Data System and deliver something in a user-centered manner using modern, iterative software development techniques and knows how to tell the difference between what components are commodities and what should be custom developed to meet user needs!

Right? I mean, isn’t that what tech billionaires do when they’re confronted with people trying to do their jobs in hostile or out-dated technology and procurement environments?

Hahahaha no. Of course not. That would be a completely different tv show!

In *this* TV show, Gideon Reeves of Reeves Industries does the following, because modern television in America reflects our dreams and desires back to us in neat 39 minute packages that allow for targeted advertising against lucrative demographics, strong pre-sold worldwide rights and hopefully good ratings in L+7: he goes to City Hall and says that he wants to run the 13th district in exchange for wiping out the City’s ~$89m underfunded pension obligation.

I mean, this is actually a real problem and that’s not a bad solution, really. There are lots of underfunded pension obligations out there. I am not sure though that Mr. Reeves is a qualified person to run a police precinct, but let’s be clear: he’s an exceedingly smart person who has demonstrated over the last 20 years or so that he can lead profitable companies in the areas of (refers back to intro video) er civilian spaceflight and “computer design”, so, as Reeves puts it in his interview on the steps of City Hall: “We’ve all seen revolutions in a lot of industries: computers, telecoms – why not law enforcement?”

Reeves is here to avenge – sorry, obtain justice for – his best friend, and if he has to buy a police precinct to do that, then I guess the B plot for this series is going to be a super interesting look at reforming technology procurement away from high-risk monolithic, waterfall projects and reorienting government departments against meeting user needs while the A plot is going to be a procedural of the week. Or the other way around.   I mean personally I’d go with the procurement stuff for the A plot.

Cut to: our empathic Latinx who (blah blah has a son, with whom she shares custody with what we’re led to be is a Suspicious White Guy Who’ll Probably Be A Foil) heads into work where she meets OH MY GOD IT’S FUSCO FROM PERSON OF INTEREST and then blah blah Reeves is there in the morning with all ahnds and the donuts for the precinct.

Reeves, see, is an *engineer*. And policing, he informs us, is an *engineering problem* and omg I can hear some of you rolling your eyes already which is interesting because you’d have to be rolling them like super hard for me to *hear* it. Reeves has done the math, and he’s come up with the stunning conclusion (that I bet none of these officers have made before, because duh they are not engineers and ONLY ENGINEERS CAN FIX THINGS) that each of these police officers is responsible for protecting and serving around 210 people! Each! How could one do such a thing? How?!

Fortunately Reeves has fixed it because he coded an App. It’s called APB and it “allows citizens to call in real-time GPS located crime reports from anywhere in the district”. All those citizens? “They just became your partners.”

So. Reeves’ engineering mentality has delivered the following solutions for the crime problem of District, er, 13: a) an app, b) better armor and c) TASERs that are about as Batman as you can get in that *in principle* they don’t kill anyone but let’s not actually go look through those explanations of benefits of the treatment of the people who get shot by them, okay?

This is all well and good but I bet our empathic latinx officer is going to have to say something about this and I’m totally right she does, also because I have fast-forwarded this and I know what happens next and you are just reading my recap of it. She wants to know: “Hey, what’s your deal, billionaire startup guy? Why is some rich guy able to buy justice? Is crime only an issue when it touches you? We have like, 10 unsolved murders a  month. Where are their billionaires?”

Reeves says sure, he’s up for justice for his best black friend. But! It’s bigger than that! It’s about “everybody who gets hurt when cops don’t get the resources to do the job” and he’s totally sure that his app is going to fix this everyone. This is a touching moment because Black Police Chief Guy totally nods when Reeves says it’s about making sure the police have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs because hey, no one ever comes down and realizes that with them.

It’s halfway through the episode so we have to set up the conceit of the series again just in case anyone missed it. Reeves (engineer, arrogant, smart white dude) goes up to our empathic latinx officer (Murphy, Robocop, woman who says that tech doesn’t solve cases, cops do) and says that he needs a partner to solve his best black friend’s murder because it’s 2017 and have you seen how hard it is to get a tv show greenlit that doesn’t have a buddy dynamic these days?

The next part is an ad for Cadillac who would like you to know that their cars are really awesome and you should buy one if you have significant affinity for a brand that is allied with technological, engineering-led solutions to social problems like policing.

So, the in-car interface for the APB app is interesting (well, not really, but I can make it interesting for us). Mission Control is set up back at the precinct and Reeves gets to say “and we’re live” when someone turns on the visualization on the big screen which is all any of us really want to say when we turn on the visualization on the big screen. I mean, I’ve even said it when I’ve turned on the visualization on the big screen. So there’s a patrol car driving along in their awesome Cadillac when a “Dude w/ knife. Come quick.” citizen report comes in which is notable because a) it has periods at the end of sentences and b) this would’ve been an awesome opportunity to use emoji. Also also it’s interesting because there are two responses: “Dismiss” on the left and “Respond” on the right and it feels like it could’ve just been briefed as Tinder But For Responding To Crime Reports. The display in the car, of course, is a weird polygonal Tesla-like giant touch screen.

So the first use of the app turns out to be some kids trying to see what happens if you press the button, but the second use of the app is someone reporting a theft *and* also taking a picture of the suspect. This proves extremely useful for Murphy (our empathic latinx officer), who gets to drive her awesome new car and take down the thief and begrudgingly admit to herself just a little inside that maybe she loves the smart engineer dude who wants her to be his partner to solve his favorite black friend’s murder.

Reeves and Murphy do a bit of partner detectiving and – get this! – their combination of street smarts and empathy and technology produce a narrowed-down list of suspects! And Reeves gets to use a drone because hey, why not, who wouldn’t want to use drones when suspects are fleeing on foot.

Anyway, there was a rookie and everyone knows that rookies have to die because technology must learn hubris and that is what happens. The rookie – who had a name! Reyes! – dies, and people are upset, especially desk sergeant Fusco (I SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING THERE FUSCO, KEEP IT UP) and meanwhile Reeves gets to do a really good impression of Tony Stark doing stuff with a box of scraps where he tries to modify the drone so it can help prevent the deaths of rookies next time.

Long story short (man, recapping this stuff takes *time*) is that through the partnership of man brains and woman empathy (but this time remember that man brains isn’t *all* the brains, he has a woman brain called Ada (who’s good with computers! Get it?) help him with the tricky stuff like ‘running a regression analysis’ while man brain also does things like ‘remove the random distribution’) they catch the bad guy who killed favorite black dude friend… but! Killer hook! As the episode closes, we look on in horror at the giant visualization screen as Reeves finds out that *more people in Chicago are using the APB app*, not just in Precinct 13! It’s as if he developed an app that can report crime with GPS but… neglected to geofence it so that it only works in Precinct 13? I mean, sure, there’s only so much you can get done in a weekend and they were probably going to fix it in the next release and *really* I guess you don’t need a geofence in your minimum viable product.

2.0 Stick The Landing

If you’ve managed to make it this far and you’re a first-time subscriber to this newsletter, then this is the bit where you’re patiently waiting for the pay-off. Look, here’s the pay-off:

This tv show is the latest of our attempts to tell stories about solutionism, about how we’re just waiting for technology to be applied (and, maybe, tempered with some humanity, because there’s our dramatic conflict) to Fix Our Problems.

Even as I type, there are Y Combinator partners excitedly chomping at the keyboard to marshal thousands of developers to solve the problem of democracy at places like (down for now, for some reason)[1]. There’s lots of things to unpack here:

a) there’s the *name* of the thing, which as I tweeted to someone just set off a bunch of pattern recognizers in my head because if you call something related to government a or the Digital Service and you’re familiar with what’s already happened in the space, then you can see some sort of association with things like the UK’s Government Digital Service and its related offspring, the United States Digital Service and now things that are unrelated but in the same space like the California Child Welfare Digital Service. If I were still a lawyer, I’d say that calling something “the digital service” is a bit like passing off when you’re launching a new thing and hoping to get on the bandwagon of some other things that have, well, shipped things.

b) ok great so it’s actually at[2] so you know good job on iterating everyone let’s keep going and see what we can do next sprint

c) the portal belies the belief that sufficiently smart people can lend their technological help to other people to solve problems which, you know, isn’t bad in and of itself. The site talks about needing “1 product engineer'[3] to do some more front and back-end programming and also someone with “product management background” because “a lot of the work is actually in refining project proposals before they’re added to the site”. I suspect that a lot of the work is actually in understanding who the users are, what they need, and then iterating against meeting those needs and improving over time. But what do I know!

d) I mean, really, what do I know – the site calls for help to build an immigration application and documents portal[4] which arguably exists already as a USCIS product, some sort of site that will store data entered by immigrants and then be transformed into data that can be used for USCIS forms. This is not a hard problem, as the site states, because all it needs is “Basic front and back-end programming. Can be done in any language.”. I mean, it’s not like you’re looking after sensitive data or creating a single point of failure for what’s potentially an adversarial relationship, right?

e) Part of the issue of course is that personally this feels like some sort of affront where some partners at Y Combinator (who, let’s be honest, *do* have disproportionate influence in the technology sector, but probably not as much as they’d like to think, and probably not as much as the rest of us would like to fear) have decided that They Alone Can Fix Things (they have identified this as a Coordination Problem so yay, let’s get to Coordinating) and have gone out and done so before (apparently) taking a look at what other efforts exist and what could be done to bolster existing efforts.

f) And here we are back with a fetishization of the new. Because the culture of the value concentrates partly on “shipping things” in one respect you can look at this “launch a product and see what happens” attitude uncharitably as a bunch of inexperienced Napoleons (Only I can fix this!) looking to get a power trip on launching their own thing rather than participating in something that already exists. Also! Launching new things is *always* easier than looking at an existing thing and thinking: how can I make this better? How can I help? Another way of looking at this is Silicon Valley’s uncomfortable relationship with libertarianism and prioritiziaton of individual freedoms: it’s better and easier for *me* to do something *on my own* than it is to *work with other people*. The amusing thing about Tech Reserve noting that getting technology people to donate time to non-technology people working in the non-profit and civic space is that there are *already* other ways to co-ordinate time and activity and all they’ve done is increased the *number of ways in which co-ordination can happen*. In other words, now we have a co-ordination co-ordination problem!

There are other ways to help. There’s technicalmajority[5], for example. There are Code for America brigades[6]. There’s TechForward[7] There’s even a bizarre alt-USDS which, to be honest, looks more like a honeypot but is probably just naive enthusiasm[8].

Stick the landing? APB was a tv show where a tech billionaire tried to fix policing and got a rookie killed in the first 24 hours. But that was a made-up rookie! It feels trite to say something about “what will happen when tech gets involved in government” but hey, that’s *already happening* and we’re already on the receiving end of *unintended outcomes due to incompetence* never mind unintended outcomes due to, well, sheer naiveté or stupendous optimism as to technical solutions that completely miss the point on what actual humans need because hey, engineering wins.

I do not know how to stick this landing. I do not know how to get back into things. I do not know how things work after 8th November, 2016. I do not know, today, how to get back to concentrating things and not being distracted after recovering from a shitty cold.

I don’t know.

[0] For those of you who know me, this is the moment where you get jab me in the ribs because Chairs are a bit like Facebook
[3] Tech Reserve
[4] Immigration Application & Documents Portal
[5] Technical Majority
[6] Code for America | Brigade
[7] Tech Forward
[8] Join the alt U.S. Digital Service