February 18, 2014

Episode Eighteen: Some Thoughts On The Illustrated Primer, Fax Your GP

0. Housekeeping

So here's an observation: if you promise that you'll get an episode of a newsletter out on what is for you, effectively, a holiday, you're just going to spend most of the day stressed about it. So on Friday last week, I probably shouldn't have said that I'd get one out today (Presidents Day - my fifteen seconds of Googling is unclear about the requirement or placement of an apostrophe). 

And, it turns out, the mid-life parenting equivalent of recovering from a bender the night before, and instead is recovering from a 12pm to 3pm open house first birthday party. The place is a mess, a wreck and we're all incredibly tired and loud noises (like, say, one year olds) are - shall we say - *piercing*. 

So. Today's episode is both late, and short. 

1. The Illustrated Primer

I mentioned the other day on Twitter that one of the things I've been vaguely working toward (and that I know some of my friends have also been working toward) in the grand scheme of "Neal Stephenson Thinks He's Writing Books But He's Actually Writing Product Specifications Or In Some Cases, If You String Them Together, Business Plans" has been The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer ("The Primer"), from his book The Diamond Age. If you haven't read The Diamond Age, then you probably should right now, etc. etc.

The thing about a lot of descriptions of product in science fiction books (or, well, any fiction) I suppose is that in some instances they're quite *clear* and quite easy to imagine, especially if you've aligned yourself with the right kind of writer. I don't necessarily mean the infodump Tom Clancy (or, let's be honest, Neal Stephenson) type of writer, but there have always been some turns of phrase (Heinlein's seminal "the door irised open" springs to mind), or some constructions of atmosphere that have been just so required to bring a fictional product to life. 

With The Primer (and it pains me that all my American readers are pronouncing it the way Jodie Foster does in Contact, which, again, another movie you should etc. etc.), Stephenson's worldbuilding extends all the way through from a physical description of the design and manufacture of the product: its codename and its assembly, the tools used in its design (that, did you notice? Provide direct, haptic-driven feedback? And provide instant feedback in terms of prototyping?) and the types of teams used in that design (farming out the battery design, for example) through to its literal assembly in a 3D printer. And then: the supporting infrastructure where, ultimately, what Stephenson is describing is just a little bit like what some people might now call a MOOC[1] because what he's been doing has been trying to get from one-off "bespoke" app, a la Dave Morin, through to the education-as-a-service system for, well, an entire country. 

(The nice thing about doing these newsletters is that, because I'm figuring things out as I literally type them, the direct line between what Stephenson's been doing with The Primer into Education As A Service and something that's going to be Disrupted, has never been so clear in my mind up until about fifteen seconds ago.)

Everything from cryptographically secure networks, 3D printers, stay-at-home, second-job zero-hour workers like the Ractors and those who decide to take biological augmentation in order to get ahead in their jobs. There's something crackly about early Stephenson work like those two books (Diamond Age and Snow Crash) which just isn't in his later work, and I wish there were something similarly, well, knitted-together. I would even forgive the Surprise! Stephenson! Endings!

Let me put it this way: (practically) all of the technology is there, right now, for the production of something like The Primer. What there isn't (and there's always a catch, isn't there) is the business model. Which, honestly, must be easy to figure out.

You've got: cheap(ish), free(ish) tablets with network access. You've got cheap(ish), educated(ish) labour in terms of a whole bunch of high-school educated people who are sitting at home with cheap(ish), reliable(ish) internet access. And, uh, you've got, a broken education system. 

Honestly, in a world where Amazon can practically give away tablets that are just about good enough, and you can tap a button and instantly be connected to a hot redhead, why can't we have The Primer?

Exactly.

[1] Massively Open Online Course

2. Fax Your GP

A long time ago, some friends in the UK made something called Fax Your MP[1] and I'm going to make up some of the history behind it because it's 10pm and it's easier for me to do that than actually look it up. The internet was supposed to be a great leveler - something that would connect us to each other, and more importantly, with those who represent us in government. It turned out that it didn't - at least, it didn't in the UK in the mid to late 90s. In fact, those who decided to try and email their MPs were met with a mixture of both disdain (ie, what kind of people use email in the mid to late 90s) and ignorance (emails were purposely treated, I think, as Not An Approved Method Of Correspondence). Instead, to make sure that your voice was heard by your MP, you could probably a) write a letter (already reduced to a self-selected set of angry green ink letter writers), b) go to a "surgery" (further reduced to the set of people who don't have jobs, don't have any green pens and do have an abundance of time) or c) by fax.

Well, there's a thing. Faxes are basically confused modems, and if an unconfused modem can be plugged into a computer, then the internet can talk to a computer that can pretend to be a confused modem and before you knew it there was a web-to-fax gateway that positively forced MPs to engage with their constituents.

You can probably guess what happened next: some MPs protested that faxes sent via the service didn't count because, well...

Anyway. More recently, there's news that the UK government is constructing a new centralised healthcare database. There are, as the Fax Your GP site points out, both good sides and bad sides to this[2], but the one thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that the opt-out procedure is almost predictably bad: ie, centrally, the advice is that you should let your GP "know", and the precise methods are left up to the specific GP practice. Which is, shall we say, unclear and unhelpful to, oh, everyone.

Hence, Fax Your GP. A simple web to fax gateway that generates the opt-out documentation and faxes it to your GP. 

There is a point here. 

There is literally no excuse (and here is where *I* break out my green ink) for this type of service of infrastructure to not exist *in this day and age*. Where the UK's GDS is doing stellar work in bringing to life public services in a useful and accessible way, it's a crying shame that volunteers have to step up to allow this sort of government interaction. In fact, given *quite how easily* the Fax Your GP team have been able to bring up their service, one is effectively forced to wonder if the lack of such a service was designed into the policy in the first place.

All of which, I'm sure, helps engender trust in the leadership of the NHS in the first place.

And so on one hand we have Flood Hack[3], with the official backing of the Prime Minister, and on the other hand, we have Fax Your GP with no backing whatsoever and pointing out a rather insulting hole in the delivery of policy.

Yes, you're right. I'm angry. 

And this is just going to happen more. Because the more a government is unable to deliver basic services and apply its policy in a usable manner, the more people are going to notice the cognitive dissonance every time their interaction with government is effectively reduced to this wonderful quote about a planning notice:

"But look, you found the notice, didn't you."
"Yes," said Arthur. "Yes, I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."

Government bureaucracy has always been absurd. Hopefully, that absurdity is just going to get more clear.

[1] http://www.faxyourmp.org.uk
[2] https://www.faxyourgp.com/about-us
[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-26225962

It's 10:34pm on a Monday night, and it's back to work tomorrow. See you then.

As ever, I appreciate any and all feedback. Please do drop me a line if there are things that you've seen that you like, or, that you haven't liked.

Best regards,

Dan