April 02, 2014

Episode Fifty: Cities; Snow Crashing 5; More Television

0.0 Station Ident

I'm back on the West Coast of the USA after what feels like a stupendous amount of travel. I'm not entirely sure where my head is. So: warnings ahead of today's episode of my newsletter. The fiftieth episode! A half-century! And halfway toward syndication! I appear to have had a *bunch* of new subscribers over the past couple of days and I can't quite tell where you've all come from. So if any of you feel like dropping a note introducing yourselves, that'd be fantastic. No pressure, of course.

1.0 Cities

One of the things I was asked about when I was in Perth was what the City might do to start punching not just above, but at, its weight in terms of creative output. Apparently (and Australians, feel free to jump in to defend the honour of your city), but Perth is a bit of an ugly duckling or the Cinderella of Australia. Our driver who picked us up from the airport told us that Perth was apparently the most remote city on Earth - that is, it was the the farthest distance from any other big city. And at the same time, it's growing massively (taxi driver conversation put it at around 8,000 immigrants a *week*). 

One of the things I referenced was this idea of a playable city, something Bristol's made a good start with through the work done at their Watershed[1], and last year's project, Hello, Lamppost[2]. Now, I make no illusions to having properly-formed opinions or relevant thoughts about cities. For that kind of stuff, I direct you toward Matt Jones' The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future[3], a fantastic essay on io9 which if you haven't read already, you should do, and then you should just feel inadequate and dumb for not having the kind of thoughts Matt does. And then you should read the referenced Greenfield and Hill essays, and you should also read Kieron Gillen's run at Iron Man, which only surprised me by having a giant quote and dedication to Jones in the Iron Metropolitan storyline.

Anyway. Playable Cities: I can have opinions about those. 

There is something about making otherwise inert objects in a city interrogable. As in: there's all this infrastructure around us, and while it might not necessarily be *smart* yet, it does form the fabric of what we need and use to survive. And so often, we don't really pay any attention to it, at least until it breaks. If we're to have a better understanding of and appreciation for the kind of infrastructure we're dependent upon, then being able to interrogate it and interact with it in a non-destructive way, and being able to query it and form a relationship with it feels like a Good Thing. And the thing is: to even put that type of infrastructure into place you have, like something like Hello, Lamppost, you need to have enough open-ish data. So there's a prerequisite, almost some sort of Civ-type tech tree (ha!) that a city needs to implement before it can become Playable. 

The other thing that struck me about Hello, Lamppost was the tone of voice of the objects. They seem pretty British. In the video, they talk about "light, charming, friendly products" 

One of the projects I was lucky to work on at W+K's London office was the second iteration of Nike Grid, something that turned the ubiquitous red phonebox into a piece of infrastructure for a running game, a persistent reminder that the city could be something else that could be toyed with. There have been numerous branded attempts to try to get us to reconsider and recontextualise urban space: Nike likes to think of devices like their Fuelband making the city a playground, for example. And yet it doesn't quite yet feel like the data is there yet, in enough of an open format. I mean you kind of need a base-level of awareness, a kind of city that has some open sense of proprioception. Parallel to all of that you have the requirements Google is making of its next candidate cities for Fiber[4] and they're the kind of things (placement of infrastructure, utility poles, etc.) that allow a city to have a sense of itself. 

The thing about play for me, and it's a super high-level thing, is that it's a safe context for experimentation. There's all the stuff about play being how babies learn, yadda, yadda, and I suppose the safe context/space for experimentation is the focus of it all for me. Our cities now are such regulated places, and the encroachment of the private onto the public is just a matter of another footnote of documentation these days. Where's a safe place for experimentation in a place like London, blanketted with CCTV cameras? Or what would be required to enact a safe place for experimentation if you *are* going to blanket everything with CCTV? There's also something intriguing in the notion of a city that presses back when you poke it, but the way that it presses back encourages further experimentation, and, bluntly, participation. Or, at least, the notion that a playable city could be one that would increase the degree of empathy amongst its inhabitants.

[1] http://www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity/
[2] http://www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity/about/the-winner/
[3] http://io9.com/5362912/the-city-is-a-battlesuit-for-surviving-the-future
[4] https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/fiber.google.com/en/us/about/files/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf

2.0 Snow Crashing 5

So, we've now got a bit about hacking, the production of software and The Black Sun. As it ever was, "when Hiro learned how to [code], a hacker could sit down and write an entire piece of software himself. Now, that's no longer possible." Now, we don't know too much about what Stephenson's talking about here. Because writing an entire piece of software himself, even fifteen years ago, wasn't exactly possible - there was definitely a whole bunch of reliance on libraries and other supporting infrastructure in the stack. So, assuming Hiro wasn't doing everything from the OS upwards and pulled in networking libraries rather than hand-rolling his own TCP/IP stack, Stephenson means Hiro was writing the application code single-handedly. Which, even now, is still possible. We're just building on top of an ever-more abstracted stack. I don't think Stephenson meant that Hiro was coding an OpenGL implementation on his own, for example.

These days, says Stephenson, "software comes out of factories, and hackers are, to a greater or lesser extent, assembly-line workers." Which is probably true for a lot of software (and certainly *explains* a lot of software out there) but at the same time doesn't take into account (or does, kind of) the view that people like Jobs had about the virtuoso hacker. The one-in-a-thousand, who is literally head and shoulders better than the rest. This worry about going back to get a regular job preys on Hiro's mind - he's scared of becoming an assembly line worker, or worse yet, a manager, but it's clear (especially later on in the book) that he is the prototypical *ninja developer*. He could probably have whatever job he wanted, and Juanita makes that clear later on. Hiro, it seems, has Issues he has to deal with. And so we get back to him remembering that he owes the mob the cost of a new car, and that he needs to get back onto his day job of selling information. 

And then we're at the Black Sun, the club, a squat black pyramid, "not an architectural masterpiece", something where Hiro and Da5id went in for simple geometric shapes, or in the parlance of Second Life, the cheapest Prims they could get their hands on. And then another interesting thing: there are *millions* of people milling about on the Street and "the computer system that operates the Street has better things to do" than do the collision detection calculations. Which, you know, seems weird for a place that's so defiantly wedded to physical representations of things (no teleporting, remember), but purely for reasons of expediency decides not to bother with it in terms of the interactions of peoples' avatars. So, just another place where Stephenson doesn't look too prescient in the face of Moore's law. There's a pretty cool throwaway line in terms of the misogynist display (it's a boys' hacker club, of course, so there are airbrushed Playboy pinups) being updated at 72fps, and just like that, Hiro's in the Black Sun.

3.0 The Naming Of Things

So Cortana is the name of the assistant built into Windows Phone[1]. We've all been there: the codename that stuck. But here's the thing about Cortana: she's another example of our SFnal future echoing back in time to our present-day. For those playing along at home, Cortana is the name of your AI companion in Bungie/Microsoft's HALO series, and in *that* toy universe, as in most of the ones we've collectively dreamt up, AIs eventually go mad. Only Bungie came up with a cool name for it: rampancy[2]. 

The other thing about Cortana is that she's your typical SF nerd boy dream AI. A mostly-naked, large-busted female form rendered in movie teal with "data" flowing over and through her, she's every straight teenage boy's pinup: your best friend who's plugged into every network, looking out for you, sexy but you can turn her off and stick her into a chip in your helmet. She can't hurt you, not really, but she can damn well help you. 

And then this: she's now been rendered, reduced, into a scrolling, pulsing circle, made family friendly but her roots are relevant. Because that's part of her history: Cortana, the personal assistant in your phone and the cloud, named after the AI from the first-person shooter.

Not that I've got something going for Apple, but at least they had the taste to name their assistant Siri, at least something androgynous sounding. 

And that's the thing: anyone googling for an image of Cortana today? First they'll see is a topless, teal, avatar of an AI.

[1] http://www.theverge.com/2014/4/2/5570866/cortana-windows-phone-8-1-digital-assistant
[2] http://bungie.wikia.com/wiki/Rampancy

3.0 More Television

Honestly, television in the US is fucked. There are two great recent essays on this, the first from Benedict Evans, where inside of the second paragraph he points out exactly how locally-optimised the US television system is: ie - it's great for what it's doing right now, but it's very, very brittle[1]. The second is from Jean-Louis Gassée, where he maintains that TV 'done right' is still a dream[2], and I'm inclined to agree with both of those smart people.

Ultimately, the problem is this: the user-experience, especially in the US, sucks. Period. As yet, there is *still* no way to search across competing video providers - only the Tivo comes close, allowing you to search amongst YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and your cable provider's video-on-demand platform but not even allowing you to search through your iTunes library, I don't think. There's no sign that Amazon's newly-announced FireTV does a better job, either. And Evans makes a good point: it's the content - the shows - that people care about, not the networks. The shows - the video - are the atoms of content that people will follow around. And it's necessarily the bundling of show to network to provider that's the sticking point here: the incumbents have no incentive to offer substitutability. And this is why Comcast wants to (and did) buy NBC - to get the content as well as supply the pipe. 

It feels like the only way out of this brittle situation is through content, too. And it's one of those things that will only work over time or when it's good enough. The user experience bit is easy *in principle* and it's here where I admit to falling into the same trap as Gassée - in principle, you just need to execute user experience well. But you also need the rights and the APIs and the cross-licensing deals to offer a service that at the moment we only *think* audiences want.

This might be where Google Fiber is coming in - the pipe into the house that comes with the service (that may as well be substitutable once you're able to provide a good enough IP connection), but ultimately it still feels like a way to do a content play. Google could, for example, buy the rights to the NFL in the same way that Sky bought the rights to the Premiership in the UK and effectively pull an audience in by holding the content they love hostage. In the UK that meant anyone who gave a damn about football had to get a dish and a subscription, in the US, that means that anyone who gives a damn about football would need to get a Chromecast. Which, to be honest, Google could afford to give away for free. But, see, the 'net access that its new NFL subscribers (or not: probably the matches would be free on YouTube with extensive pre/post-roll, right?) need to view the matches would only be supplied via... the existing cable companies. For whom we know net neutrality is a hot button topic right now.

In fact, it's exactly this kind of bullshit and protection of misguided moats that leads to stuff like the Veronica Mars movie being released through Ultraviolet, a crappy user-experience but one that makes absolute sense if you own a studio, instead of a similarly DRMed but actually-useable service like iTunes.

There are few areas where I agree that it'd be quite nice for the internet titans to have a regulation-free innovation zone. One of them, though, is a space where they just damn-well fix the tv experience.


[1] http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/3/27/notes-on-tv
[2] http://www.mondaynote.com/2014/03/30/tv-done-right-still-a-dream/

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I was on a plane yesterday, so I didn't get the full exposure of April Fools. I highly recommend international air travel as a carbon-expensive way to avoid all of that tedium on the 'net. 

See you all tomorrow,

Dan