s2e04: Everything 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

Tuesday, 9th June 2015. Mumble thousand feet, one-third of the way back from MSP to Portland, where Portland continues to be (relatively speaking) excruciatingly hot, gearing up to greet us with 87 degree f/31 degree c weather by the time we land. We’re on our way back from a short family holiday in Madison, WI to fulfill filial duty in attending a family friend’s wedding (and coincidentally see how the kids I used to play video games with in Birmingham, England, twenty five years ago have changed and moved all around the world) and then stopped off in River Forest, just outside Chicago, to visit some more close friends.

1.0 Everything

I got the Warren Ellis Orbital Operations klaxon this morning; a collection of his talks[1] from the past few years have been collected into a Kindle book and they’re a pretty quick read. I’m left with a sort of residual feeling of everything-connectedness, of the sort of future-making that looks to make sense of the present and create what’s next. There’s a part in Ellis’ talks that takes the time to refute the idea of a manufactured normalcy field, something that I tried my hand at last year while newslettering, aggregating a whole bunch of optimistic-and-crazy-future-things that were happening right now, in 2014. It’s not that the future is here not evenly distributed (if you’re a certain kind of person in your mid-thirties, that phrase has been repeatedly drilled in to you by now), but to add a different kind of atemporeality to that future: the future is *still* happening, it’s *still* new stuff (yeah, ignore all that jetpack shit, ignore all that smart car stuff and the idea that a lot of this stuff is easily graspable and imaginable now that we’ve arguably got more processing cycles than we know what to do with in most cases). In other words: new future is still happening.

In a piece about pop music, Ellis talks a bit about weather. About complex, interconnected, networked systems and then later on about how we can’t just think about the future of spaceplanes without, well, talking about the whole system that the spaceplane is embedded in. The politics, economics and environment of it.

[An aside: last Thursday, when we’d arrived at ORD, I stayed up late in the hotel room reading abstracts and papers from the Santa Fe institute – look, here’s the Pinboard/Instapaper trail of URLs[2]. I had gotten there by reading an Atlantic article about Bettencourt and West finding invariant scaling laws at work in how cities work. West is a British ex-physicist[3] at the Santa Fe institute, and of course the Santa Fe institute is all about “the interdisciplinary study of complex systems”; so I have all this stuff swirling about in my brain and the thing that pops into my head about Ellis and giant weather systems is *of course* Ian Malcolm, the renowned mathematician at UT Austin specialising in chaos theory[4]  and then before you know it I’m off to the Kindle edition of Jurassic Park on my laptop and then cracking jokes about fanfic where the GOV.UK engineering/development/product/service/delivery team are hired by John Hammond to build a Jurassic Park that actually works[5, 6, 7]]

Anyway, that’s where we are. Stupendously complicated, interconnected systems where the feedback loop has shrunk and increased its frequency.

Some other things: you’ve probably already seen this, but the fractional intelligence involved in the (human-designed) Russian billboard that attempts (and not particularly successfully, and doubly so due to the whole meta-effect of ad agencies wanting people to know about their campaigns so that their campaigns are known about because the story *about* the campaign is actually more of a hook than the actual campaign itself) to advertise contraband illicitly by using computer vision to, er, hide its wares whenever the police are nearby[8]. Which, you know, fair enough: children start lying when they’re around two years old, the idea of having something or knowing something and concealing it from others is, er, pretty cool and it’s great to see that advertisers have brought this skill to the medium of outdoor digital interactive advertising. I suppose.

Anyway: another thought prompted by a throwaway Ellis tidbit[9] in relation to the news that some brands (in this case, Ballantines Whisky) after having escaped the early 2000s gravitational well of “build it and they will come”, slingshotted their way past “build it where the people are” have now set a heading for “deploy fleeting structures of content on other peoples’ networks” by commissioning a digital magazine for Instagram. I’ll get to the point, though. Ellis says this: “Used to be that porn was the vanguard of any new comms technology shift. Now it’s advertising. Has been for a while. Look at where the infomercial people are going” and he’s not wrong.

You take that and you throw it against the growing realisation that maybe advertising is more insular than ever[10] and is racing in a sort of zero-sum, doubling-down “for God’s sake, just do something, anything, to get ATTENTION”.

I am thinking of a stupid Twitter account that at nicely spaced random intervals just reminds you to stand, because that’s what Matt Haughey’s documenting[11].

It is Friday evening now, at the end of three days in San Francisco in the office. I have tried to write, kind of, most days since I started on Tuesday, and haven’t quite gotten around to it. I’m not sure what kind of thread I had with the Everything collection of concepts that were floating around in my head.

On Wednesday afternoon, work colleague Mike Migurski had invited Nicholas de Monchaux[12] in to the office to give a talk that was provocatively titled Spacesuits and Cities[13] which, if you’ve been following along for a while, is pretty much catnip for my already hyperactive brain. The spacesuit part was a quick overview of what de Monchaux talks about in this Bldblog interview[14], of which the things that stuck in my head were variously: the invention of systems design (and thus systems thinking) during the development of the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, what then turned into the space race and, like a sort of super-catnip, the idea that such technological systems-design systems break down, or, rather, their functionality kind of goes fuzzy the closer they get to the human body. The story woven from the reality of how the first spacesuits got made is one of patterns and sewing and hand-madeness, of what happens when a system that deals in black boxes and defined inputs and outputs instead deals with something that is grown and different but, roughly, more or less, within certain tolerances, is grown: the human body.

So at this point there’s a ding-ding-ding noise and the connections between Bettencourt and West’s work in the physical laws behind cities – inherently grown things – and what de Manchaux is talking about in terms of what in systems design has hitherto been a tremendously successful way of humans to get tremendously complicated things done that they we wouldn’t have been able to get done otherwise, like take a human being and not only put them just inside the envelope of an environment in which they *require* technology to survive, but then to push them out a bit further on to our most visible orbiting body.

Cities, then, feel like a sort of environment or structure that is excreted by a sufficiently dense group of human beings. Get enough of us in one place and then certain things just kind of start oozing out: they are grown, and not necessarily designed. Or, even, when we *think* we’re designing them, how much have we been actually mathematically designing? We think we’re being all so clever with our urban design and planning but at the same time, cities have been around for *ages*, and as de Monchaux points out, in the 1960s and 1970s, when we were awed by the power of systems design and wanted to apply it to the instant environments in which we lived, RAND and HUD’s experiments with urban planning were, as he lightly put it, ranged from pretty much disasters to, I suppose, “mostly harmless”.

Which is all well and good, but there’s a whole bunch of you in the advertising and strategy world who read this kind of stuff and are probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point or if, indeed, I’m going to be able to stick the landing[15].

So here’s what’s in my head. The weather. Giant, complex, interconnected systems where sometimes we just want to know if it’s going to be hot or cold or even just if it’s going to rain. Where we’ve been building models and collecting data and applying them to more computing power (that’s now easier to access than ever to anyone and everyone) so that we can get higher and higher resolution predictions. Could you have built a system, a model, a *something* that could’ve looked at Tumblr and everything else and found healthgoth? Or normcore? Because, sure, there’s a massive security-military-espionage-industrial-complex, but there’s also a massive brand-advertising-complex, and at some point the people in the latter group are (might?) figure out the sorts of things that they *could* do with concepts like Total Information Awareness (that, ha, haven’t gone away, they’ve, just… well, happened anyway) that would be potentially more useful than “better targeted ads” and instead: what’s going to happen next?

Who’s going to be more accurate? A Machine that can look at everything and spontaneously start recognising cats in YouTube videos? Or a bunch of coolhunter trend identifiers? Or, more realistically, a combination of the two? Or, is this just a lot of wishful thinking and wanking about what is, essentially, just another educated middle-class guy re-hashing psychohistory, a science-fictional concept that is over seventy years old? I mean, on the other hand Google Photos just rolled out a *phenomenally useful* search engine for All Your Photos Ever that, even if it *doesn’t* use something like that Automatic YouTube Cat Finder, uses something *like* it to look at, recognise and categorize the content all of your photographs.

Anyway. Things that grow versus things that are designed versus things that are designed to grow. That’s a thing.

[1] CUNNING PLANS: Talks By Warren Ellis – Kindle edition by Warren Ellis, Ed Zitron, Roger Strunk. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
[2] Scientific Proof That Cities Are Like Nothing Else in Nature – CityLab
[3] Geoffrey West Finds the Physical Laws Embedded in Human Cities | DiscoverMagazine.com
[4] List of Jurassic Park characters – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[5] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “Please back my kickstarter fanfic where the team behind GOV.UK are hired by John Hammond to build Jurassic Park.”
[6] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “Making Dinosaurs So Good People Prefer To Use Them.”
[7] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “Jurassic Park 4 is all about trying to make genetically engineered dinosaurs simpler, clearer and faster.”
[8] Russian billboard advertising contraband hides when it recognises cops | Naked Security
[10] What if Cannes Lions celebrates the worst, not the best of advertising? | Media Network | The Guardian
[11] Every Inappropriate Time My Apple Watch Told Me to Stand Up
[12] Nicholas de Monchaux
[13] Instagram – Spacesuits and Cities
[14] BLDGBLOG: Spacesuit: An Interview with Nicholas de Monchaux
[15] Emails are the new blogs. – Christopher Butler

9:11pm on Friday June 12, 2015, and about 1,900 words of splurging. I probably could’ve sent this sooner. Let’s see how next week goes.