s2e26: The Product Wars; Emergency _________ Hologram 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

First, thank you to everyone who wrote in reply to the last episode. It means a lot. One thing that I feel I have to say is that an unsurprising number of you have either had personal experience of depression, or of it affecting someone close to you. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, people still seem to be acting as if depression isn’t really a thing that happens, so I just wonder what it’s going to be like in twenty-odd years when my son is in his early 20s.

I think – I suppose – I’m feeling better. The analytical part of my brain wants to break it down and do some sort of root cause analysis. Was it because I didn’t give myself a choice and hauled myself down to San Francisco for a two-day senior staff off-site and forcibly switched on my pretend-to-have-a-personality-no-really-everything’s-ok module? Was it because I aggressively (but, I hasten to add, legally) medicated myself? Or because I’d spent the last few days hiding? Or because when I was minding my own business walking through PDX airport on the way to my gate, someone I didn’t know shouted out my name, said that they’d recognized me from my newsletter and would I like a ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt? Or because of what I wrote in the last episode and all the replies that I got?

I don’t know. I don’t know if it will come back (but, let’s be honest: it will come back, and part of the issue is dealing with the fact that it does come back, it always comes back and the realisation when talking with my therapist that, in all likelihood, it will *never go away* and is just a thing that I have to live with, but that we’re inching along and making progress and it feels like every time I’m falling down a deep dark pit I’m not spending as long a time trapped in it, or that even though I continue to inexplicably fall into those mental crevasses – which crevasses are unhelpfully notable in their lack of easily parseable warning signs of any kind, most of the time – the period between such stumbling is increasing. I suppose it means that there’s some sort of giant depression planet x out there on an oblique orbit with an unpredictable period and me and my medical team are busy improvising new ways to a) detect it, b) deflect it, and c) recover from its inevitable collisions. The latest prescription, for example, is probably the result of some sort of research into using high-powered lasers at the giant depression planet and nudge it out of the way – or at the very least, so it only nicks and produces a flesh wound – through some sort of ingeniously calculated outgassing model.

So. Less depressed, I suppose. Cautiously less depressed. If not light at the end of the tunnel, then at least the suggestion of a breeze, but the kind that resists observation because if you pay too much attention to the breeze then it might inexplicably disappear and instead of knowing that there’s the chance to claw some sort of egress somewhere you end up slipping back with a crippling lack of belief in ability and worth.

(Given that the shtick for this newsletter is whatever’s on my mind, I should probably disclose that I had accidentally wandered into the semi-facetious provocative statement of ‘well, if you’re serious about reducing gun violence in America then mental health isn’t your problem, you should be focussed on bringing about a post-capitalist utopian society where an individual’s value can be assessed without reference to productivity’)

Anyway. Now I’m not sure if being forced to be sociable with no viable escape route did a hard reset on my brain and nudged it out of whatever literal depression it was in.

1.0 The Product Wars

I was lucky enough to get an advance readers copy in my email yesterday of The Product Wars (Hammersley, B. and Doctorow, C., Penguin Random House, 2041) the other day, and there was a great bit in it that I wanted to quote here:

In 2023, the title change was made official and the President of the United States of America formally became Product Director (United States of America. Following the role’s unprecedented success, the inevitable promotion to Product Director (North America) quickly followed in 2026. Lagging behind and forced to react, the President of the European Commission reluctantly accepted the role of President of Product (Europe) in 2030, but by then, it was too little, too late.

On a parallel track ten years earlier –  three years before the change in office of the then President of the United States – the office of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was dissolved by a formal act of Parliament and replaced with the position of Director of Design and Delivery (United Kingdom), overseeing the promotion of the United Kingdom-as-a-Service from nationwide beta status to global live. This early action of turning the United Kingdom into a service significantly out-competed the European product offering and by mid-2035, the Director of Design and Delivery (United Kingdom Services) was able to report she had achieved over 2.3bn DAUs following successful expansion into the EMEA and that early results from the soft-launch in India were positive.


This proved to be the turning point for the Product Director (North America) who had been facing increasing churn in 2035 and followed by steeply declining DAUs in 2036. With user flight and a net promotor score at an all-time low for North American Services, in a widely anticipated September keynote address, the Product Director (Americas) announced the relaunch of a former NSA program to better understand user needs. This announcement was not received well. Following the rollout of the user research program North American Services lost tens of millions of DAUs within 72 hours and subscription revenues plummeted. Most of these dissatisfied users jumped ship, using a migration service cannily launched days earlier by the Director of Design and Delivery (United Kingdom Services). This spike of new user acquisition through an exodus from the United States had been anticipated by United Kingdom Services, having recently turned most of Australia into a solar-powered carbon-neutral data center in exchange for the Ashes, in a trade deal that most commentators had ignored at the time.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government had taken to agile nation state delivery and product management ideology in their own way and in 2019 announced that ██ was now overseeing █████████, the latest in a long series of five year plans.

2.0 Emergency _________ Hologram

There was a brief phase where people I knew were paying attention to what I’ll call Service Holograms (because I’m on a plane and the wifi isn’t working) – those video projections of customer service agents (invariably women, because early 21st century still), mostly in airports, who would smile at you and offer canned responses to help you on your way. One way of thinking about them would be in the petulantly pedantic sort of “well, they’re *not* holograms, are they, because holograms would be-” before being hit with a bread roll, but a different New Aesthetic way of thinking about them would be about video projection and automation and social interaction.

Instead of noticing proper things like that and being as smart as someone like James Bridle, I instead do silly things like have the thought of Star Trek: Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, but for utterly mundane things. The joke about Voyager’s doctor is that they’re on this space ship, see, stranded really, really, really far from home and their real doctor died. But! It’s the 24th century, so they have a backup, and it’s a bit like Siri – literally, what with the bedside manner and all – and this backup is a Very Complicated Computer Program called the EMH – the Emergency Medical Hologram – which presents itself in sickbay using built-in holographic emitters and provides as useful human-shaped thing for human-shaped things to interact with when they need to deliver a baby or extract a foreign organism from their abdomen. Unfortunately, the EMH is a) a backup, b) limited in scope and c) supposed to supplement a Real Doctor, and the program is given a stern talking-to by Captain Janeway who informs it that, like the rest of the crew, it’s going to have to adapt because they’re in uncharted territory.

First, there are a whole bunch of things that are stupid about the Emergency Medical Hologram that you can’t really dwell on too much because if you do then the entire Star Trek universe doesn’t make sense and sometimes you don’t want to be known as that person even though, statistically speaking, there are probably lots of other people like that and you should just be proud of it.

For example, there’s a distinct lack of robosurgery in the Star Trek universe. Star Trek’s 24th Century seems to exist in some weird state of Oregon where it’s illegal for you to pump your own gas (yes, I’ve gone native) and someone else is employed to do it for you and so in the 24th Century it’s presumably illegal for robots or algorithms to do things like practice medicine or give you an anaesthetic for a headache, which is what Beverly Crusher seems to be doing most of the time. Or even just hold a little pen type think that goes wibble wibble all over you. Nope. Humans have to do that. And they even complain sometimes when they don’t have enough nurses!

But, see, the way my head works is that if there’s tech for an Emergency Medical Hologram (and at this point it seems like we should have a Gartner curve for Holographic Performance Technology, given that Whitney Houston is about to embark on a post-humous holographic tour) then there should be All The Other Emergency ______ Holograms in which case I promptly imagined the Emergency Human Resources Hologram which is for when your startup can’t afford a proper doctor human resources manager but can afford a Human Resources Hologram As A Service and you can have someone pop up and say “Please state the nature of the human resources emergency” (part of the skit with the EMH on Voyager was that every time he was activated, he said “please state the nature of the medical emergency” and sometimes *there wasn’t a medical emergency* and it turns out that some things must be really funny when you’re 75,000 light years from home). In Star Trek’s universe, then, you’d soon have:

  • Emergency Accountant Hologram (“please state the nature of the tax emergency”)
  • Emergency Massage Therapist Hologram
  • Emergency Drain Cleaner Hologram
  • Emergency Plumber Hologram (“please state the nature of the plumbing emergency”)
  • Emergency Gift Buying Hologram (“please state the nature of the gift buying emergency”)
  • Emergency Speech Writing Hologram (“please state the nature of the speech writing emergency”)
  • Emergency Social Media Emergency Reaction Campaign Hologram (“please state the nature of the social media emergency reaction campaign”)
  • Emergency Parental Technical Support Hologram (“please state the nature of the parental technical support emergency”)

The Emergency HR Hologram is, of course, a hop skip and a jump to “OK Google, what maternity benefits do I have?” and “Hey Siri, did what Phil just say constitute sexual harassment?” – or at least it would be if Apple weren’t so obsessed with making sure that we can check our stocks on things. I swear if Apple do ever launch a holographic assistant one of the demos *will* be Phil Schiller checking out his portfolio on it.

(An aside: I went an tested the Google OneBox response for “what maternity benefits do I have” and the answer was: a) there’s a onebox for it, and b) it was wrong, in which case: hmmm, maybe the US government doesn’t need to fix access to information about services if they can be answered in a onebox – ha, not really. Anyway, here’s the onebox:)

So I guess I should’ve checked with my Android phone or whatever and actually done a OK Google, and now I’m terrified that OK Google is going to be a verb in the same way that Google is a verb and we’ll all be telling people to OK Google that. (“Yeah Alice, could you OK Google that for me?”)



PS. I haven’t received a reply from Withings yet. The odds on my receiving a reply before I talk about them in Chicago are decreasing as I type, I expect.