s2e32: GUT; Sixteen Theses 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

7:34pm after a day that involved a bunch of reading, a bunch of writing, and a little bit of listening and talking on the phone. At one point during the day, a little bit before lunch, and then mostly after lunch, I got so frustrated with the whole thing and the pile of things-to-be-written-and-thought-about that I pretty much just went into full-on panic, imposter-syndrome mode and did some retail therapy with a bunch of birthday money I’d set aside. End result? I managed to get some work done and I also have a very mean opinion about the 4th Generation Apple TV that mainly has things to do with how not to do text entry and initial device/account set-up.

Watching: the new Apple TV screensaver floating in the background.

1.0 GUT

In one of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence science fiction universe[1], there’s a thing called the GUTdrive[2], which means Grand Unified Theory drive – a sort of hand-wavy hard-ish science fiction concept for spaceship propulsion that isn’t possible right now but is based on semi-plausible physics. You can tell that Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence is Of A Certain Age because it has things like GUT in there as an acronym (you don’t get mention of a Grand Unified Theory as much anymore, these days it’s all quantum gravity this[3] or, hey look what evidence there is for New Physics* at CERN[3]).

* New Physics, your writer mansplained, is what people excitingly call anything that doesn’t fit our current model of how the universe works (the Standard Model), and it’s exceedingly hard to google as a search term, because, well, “New Physics”. It normally means things like discovering particles that we don’t think might exist and having No Explanation For Them.

Anyway. All of this is a dodge, because this section doesn’t have anything to do with physics at all, and is instead going to be a whole section that basically wallows in introspection. It is instead, my attempt at devising some sort of Grand Unified Theory that applies to myself. This will be familiar to those of you newsletter readers who grew up on blogs and have been reading for a while about things that are weirdly and uncomfortably personal. For the others of you who’re more interested in Someone’s Opinions About Brands or Some Other Guy’s Opinions About Technology or What Is The Whole Point Of This Internet Thing Anyway, feel free to skip this section.

If, however, you’re someone who was born around 1979, feeling like a fish out of water because you’re not quite a proper Gen-Xer but on the other hand quite adamant that you’re not a millennial (because amongst other things, you know what “SET BLASTER = A220 I5 D1 T4” means) and you’ve ended up working in an area that your parents understand to be “the internet”, then read on.

I have, I’m happy to admit, a “non-traditional” career trajectory that up until recently was quite hard to describe. I get to call it “non-traditional” because at Wieden+Kennedy, when I joined the headquarters office in Portland, I landed in the “Creative” department, but was put in the “Non-Traditional Creative” group. “Non-Traditional Creative” at the time meant someone who invariably hadn’t come in through ad school (which also was a surprise, because who knew things like ad school existed!), who might have been someone who had done Really Well By Making Funny Videos On The Internet, or had otherwise been someone who had a reputation for Doing Stuff On The Internet That Looks Interesting.

I say this all because these are the things that I’ve done with my life in the 36-odd years so far:

  • loved writing
  • loved computers
  • started blogging before it was called blogging and accidentally met a whole bunch of super smart people because apparently there just aren’t that many people in England who were into this whole write-stuff-on-the-internet thing[5, 6]
  • got a law degree from a really old college[7] at a really old university[8], but not a great degree, just a Desmond, and instead of hanging out with all the lawyers instead hung out with physicists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians and computer scientists
  • accidentally helped moderate the community of one of the first alternate reality games[9] because a) computers, b) games, c) internet, d) science fiction, e) IRC, f) what else are you going to do with a 100mbit connection to the internet in your dorm room in 2001 I mean really and became super good friends with the people who made that game
  • did some work with that team at Microsoft trying to design a follow-up alternate reality game
  • qualified as a lawyer and got offered a job to practice intellectual property law and technology law
  • decided not to do that (become a lawyer) because a) lawyering is boring it turns out, b) sitting across the table from people with intellectual property and technology law problems is super frustrating when you just want to be on the other side of the table with the client just doing stuff properly in the first place, c) timesheets
  • instead joined a startup[9] as its COO (yes, an overly inflated job title because: startup) to create an alternate reality game[10] and got a patent for it
  • left that startup and started a new one with my brother[11] because we didn’t want to make a 2.5d kid’s virtual world and won some awards
  • kept up with random appearances on TV by, amongst others, interviewed by the BBC as “a Pirate Bay user”[12]
  • managed to be qualified and competent to be a full voting member of the British Academy for Film and Television Arts as well as the Royal Society of Arts
  • ended up on a few of those xx under xx lists in a few different industries (one for broadcast media and one from Wired, thanks), which are entirely pretty much down to whether or not you know people on the jury, I think
  • ended up working at an advertising company trying to help internetify it and I *think* helped a client get a patent for a thing
  • got published at places like Wired[13] and Domus[14]
  • oh right: spoken at an almost embarrassing number of conferences over the past 11 or so years but never have I *ever* described myself as “a keynote speaker”, to the extent that I’m now dealing with the fact that people *pay* me to speak at conferences. I still get super nervous. That’ll never go away.
  • left the advertising company because we had differing thoughts on what “internetify” meant and how it should be achieved
  • joined Code for America because I was super jealous of all my friends at the UK’s Government Digital Service and all the good work they were doing

Now, all of this has been a bit weird because in amongst all of those bullet points, I had a whole bunch of interviews for things like being a general manager at a Microsoft Games Studio, a Creative Director at Frog and an Interaction Director at Nokia (actual Nokia, not Microsoft Nokia. But even so!). This has always been difficult to square because many of these things at the outset appear to have nothing to do with each other:

  • storytelling
  • game design and playful design
  • empathy
  • quantified self and health
  • interactive advertising and marketing
  • digital services
  • a bunch of intellectual property and technology law
  • an unhealthy interest in how computers work and how they’re terrible

Until I realised, quite belatedly (and by belatedly, I mean only really on *Monday*) that the only thing that was tying all these things together and the rather haphazard career path (such as it can be called one) was this: all the stuff I’m interested in, multiplied by the internet.

It would get embarrassing when I would meet someone when I worked at Wieden because, in the industry of advertising at least, they’re widely regarded as one of the best creative agencies in the world and from some peoples’ perspectives, I had accidentally ended up there without ever having wanted to explicitly work in advertising before in my life. And yet! As soon as they (ie: the industry) were *interested* in the internet, it suddenly became easier to square the hole. I’d have no advice to people who wanted to become a creative director at such an agency because I couldn’t really say: “do what I did” because I genuinely didn’t have a plan, and even a post-rationalised one would’ve looked weird.

That said, the post-rationalised one that *does* make sense to me now is this: I know what I’m interested in, and while it’s *all* of those things, it’s also *always* the internet and how it’s changing everything it touches. That means, to a greater or lesser degree, I’m interested in how the internet changes and healthcare, how it changes government, how it changes the way we communicate and advertise and the way we have fun. So, sometimes I end up doing work that’s a little bit more serious, like helping California figure out a way to have a non-sucky outcome with a giant piece of technology procurement that looked like it would be less-than-optimal. Other times, I itch to have a playbox to make something *fun*, but at both of those extremes, it’s still *internet*.

I guess all of that is to say that I feel happier now that I’m more able to accept that what looked to me like an embarrassing hodgepodge of things that I’d done that I didn’t really feel capable or qualified to do is instead the result of a single through-line of one thing –  the internetification and software-eatingification of things and the world – against everything else that I’m interested in. And it’s been the combination of the everything-else-that-I’m-interested-in that has made me, I think (I hope?) useful and interesting to the people who’ve, well, found me useful and interesting.

[1] Xeelee Sequence – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[3] The Battle Between Gravity and Quantum Physics, as Told by Craig Hogan and Lee Smolin
[4] So What Is It??? | Of Particular Significance
[5] Cotton wool noise
[6] Mostly quite blurry
[6] Gonville & Caius | University of Cambridge
[7] University of Cambridge
[8] The Beast (game) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[9] Mind Candy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[10] Perplex City – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[11] Six to Start
[12] Pirate Bay user | Flickr – Photo Sharing!
[13] Google Can Buy Nest, But It Can’t Buy Our Trust | WIRED
[14] Fitness by design

2.0 Sixteen Theses

For those of you who decided to scroll past all of that self-obsessed crap above, welcome back. You’ll like this bit, because it’s Opinions About Someone Else’s Opinions About Technology, which is what I presume many of you subscribed to this for.

So Benedict Evans wrote Sixteen Mobile Theses[1] in time for Christmas which loses a bit of effect in translation I think because it’s just not the same when you print them out and nail them to the front door of your venture capital firm’s blog. But anyway. Go read those Theses, because I suppose I promised you some Opinions About That Other Guy’s Opinions.

(Technically, I’m not white, I just present as middle-class well-educated white dude, so *actually* (ha) you’re getting Ethnically Diverse Guy’s Opinion About White Guy’s Opinion).

1. Mobile is the new central ecosystem of tech
Well, duh, because tech can be in more places now. Next. Of course the central ecosystem isn’t going to be one that’s still anchored in heavy things that need to be plugged in to specific places, mostly at desks.

2. Mobile is the internet
Also duh because the internet makes some sense, but not very much, when you can only access it at things that are on peoples’ desks as opposed to *anywhere in the world* at any time.

3. Mobile isn’t about small screens and something about PCs and keyboards
OK I’m still not sure what Evans is going on about here. I *think* he means something about the ubiquity of computing and connectivity and the breakdown of the Wintel hegemony, but it’s not completely clear. I *think* he’s saying that “mobile” means iOS/Android and that PC means OS X/Windows and that “mobile” will beat “PC”. Which, duh, because many smaller things beats fewer bigger things.

4. The future of productivity
Evans is wishing for a world where we don’t have to create pointless giant documents and spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations and that would be great and all but I think none of us would be surprised if we discovered a PowerPoint presentation with an executive summary about the cost/benefit analysis of the pyramids as well as a few corresponding two-by-twos. I have doubts about how software is going to radically change how we think and communicate in terms of stodgy old businesses because *even the new disruptive businesses that I’ve worked with* have to spend a disproportionate amount of time in long documents made of many words and then shorter (but sometimes even longer) documents of fewer words per screen. I’m prepared to agree, though, that hopefully we’ll need to produce *fewer* documents about what we’re going to do and instead just get on with *doing the things* and that things like Slack help with progress in that direction, but these still also seem more cultural than tool-driven.

5. Something about Microsoft

6. Apple and Google won but it’s complicated.
Oh my god I can’t believe ther are 16 of these.

7. Search and discovery
OK yes I get it we still have limited capacity for attention and the old power laws still apply and blah blah. THIS IS ONLY NUMBER SEVEN.

8. Apps versus the web
OK yes, the “do people want to put your icon on the homescreen” is a good sideways look at it, but I’m also reminded of one (good) statistic I saw recently which is that apps make sense for rich, time-intensive interactions, and websites make sense for reach. That still makes sense to me.

9. Whatever comes after PageRank
Something about some new way to connect (ugh) people to relevant (ugh) content (I am throwing up into a bucket).

10. Messaging
Sure, conversational interfaces aren’t going to go away, we know how to use them. Not *entirely* sure how far messaging can go with this because texting in some ways is pretty inefficient (see: that Hacker News story about the badly conceived Salesforce-esque CRM that was going to be powered by natural language), but yeah, this is kind of the “go where the people are” strategy, right? And right now, people are totally all over messaging.

11. Android
Yeah, I don’t use Android. Sorry. I get that Google Android versus all the Not Google Androids is an interesting thing but even so THIS IS NUMBER ELEVEN AND THERE ARE FIVE MORE.

12. Internet of Things
Yes, “connected to a network” means as much as “has a motor” but (if only there were startups working on this!) the whole IoT “ecosystem” is such a fucking mess of Things That Don’t Work Properly, never mind those Hue lights that don’t talk to other Hue Compatible-But-Not-Really lights. Also, Hue and Hugh. From the Borg. Get it? My reckon? There are only so many ways for a regular physical light/lightswitch to fail, and many, many more ways for an equivalent IoT device to not only fail but also to be just generally shit and underperform in terms of basic needs of “be able to turn lights on and off relatively easy”.

13. Cars
I have a two year old. I’m pretty sure (at least, I’m hoping) that he a) won’t ever buy a car, b) won’t ever have to learn how to drive one. Already he has to grasp the concept that *someone* has to sit up front and drive it and we both can’t sit back and talk with him which, from his point of view, is a major inconvenience and a bummer to do that that he *will complain about vociferously*.

14. TV and the living room
Look, the TV is just a big screen and it’s not a technology problem, it’s a content production and licensing problem. The TV is lagging behind now, anyway and it’s stupendously clear that “video” has been unbundled from “the thing formerly known as the television that was required to display video”.

15. Watches
I just can’t even.

16. Finally, we are not our users.
Speak for yourself, valley boy! OK, but yes. I am aware that I’m on the bleeding edge. I like to think it’s good that I *know* that I’m not on the bleeding edge. I do live in Portland, though.

[1] 16 Mobile Theses | Andreessen Horowitz

8:45pm, 2800 words and I guess I should clean the kitchen.