s4e02: So, What’d I Miss? 

by danhon

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) thedigitalservice.org[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 techreserve.org[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
[1] https://thedigitalservice.org
[2] https://techreserve.org
[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