March 22, 2014

Episode Forty Two: OK Google, Initiate Singularity; Random

1.0 OK Google, Initiate Singularity

I give Google a hard time. It's easy to, and that's perhaps a lazy position to take, to knock the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. But there are a number of reckons that I have swirling around the whole idea and concept and execution of Google, not least of which the recognition that Google as a singular entity is a pretty difficult thing to pin down. 

But then, maybe I should just get a bit weird. So here's the first one.

The singularity's already happening! It's just not happening the way we thought it would. A bunch of people working at Cyberdyne Systems are not creating a singular computer system, they have not created a neural net processor capable of learning and it's not being hooked up to US CENTCOM or NORAD or any other ALLCAPS US military organisation and being handed the keys to the nuclear arsenal. No: it's instead roughly fifty thousand employees and, well, anyone who uses the internet, hooked up into some sort of symbiotic system full of designers, developers, marketers, ground-truth experts, PhD researchers, interns, HR specialists and Starcraft players turning into the biggest semi-public repository of big-data "stuff" that's ever been assembled.

The second is that the world already deals with Google as a bootstrapping artificial intelligence with opaque aims because: guess what! Corporations are like that already. And some are just more weakly godlike than others. Charlie Stross has a great post on how corporations are alien invaders from Mars[1], exhibiting distinctly inhuman attributes. Instead of imagining Google as headed up by Page, Schmidt and Brin, imagine it as a Big Dumb Object that suddenly appears inside our space/time horizon, installs itself all over the planet and opaquely starts deploying sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. I'm not sure whether to be more, or less scared, when viewing the situation like that. At the very least it's problematic because while it acknowledges that as a super-organism Google can't be ascribed motivations in the way a regular human being can, that simultaneously absolves Page, Schmidt and Brin of any responsibility why they still have some degree of authority.

The third is this: it might just be the hyperbole and propaganda talking, but Google feel like they're mounting the private equivalent of a bunch of Manhattan projects all at once. On the one hand: terrible! On the other, at least someone's doing something. For every skeezy thing that Google does (Google Plus) they do a bunch of hard research that does genuinely feel like it advances the state of the art. And to be honest, even if they don't nail the user experience the first time (and they are getting better), they provide shoulders for the rest of the world to stand on. 

The fourth is this: I have weird dreams, and if you'll excuse me (which you'll have to, because this is my newsletter) I'm going to tell you briefly about the one weird dream I had where I was hopping between different parallel universes all of which had idiosyncratic executions of Google. Perhaps the most interesting one was where Google still dominated the search business but did so not through Pagerank but through the mass employment of tens of millions of librarians. The public in that particular universe thought Google was pretty good, if not slow and sometimes wrong or inaccurate (sorry, librarians), whereas us travellers from algorithmic Google Prime universe were straight up perplexed.

The fifth and last is simply Justine Tunney, who as self-styled "founder" of Occupy (so far as said movement can be said to have a founder) and latterly software engineer at Google, started a petition (widely regarded to be a troll) at the White House's website calling for the entire US Federal Government to be dismantled and Eric Schmidt to be installed as CEO-in-chief. Tunney appears to be one of those types of people who openly admits to trolling, but it's also hard (given some of her previous public statements regarding her politics) to distinguish whether she's actually being semi-serious. Troll or not, certainly another weak signal.

[1] http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/12/invaders-from-mars.html


2.0 Random

A collection of random thoughts and reckons:

One: 

I continue to dabble. I have a half set-up Heroku instance running a clone of Phil Gyford's Little Printer example that LP's you your most favorited/retweeted tweets[1], and I'm hacking away at it (which isn't *hard* - I know what to do and how to do it, it's just sitting down and finding the time and the head space) because I want to put together a push service that tells me "Dan Hon you have been fined sixteen credits for violations of the Verbal Morality Statutes"[2] because a cultural reference joke plus internet of things hardware is what passes for humour in my brain these days. Even better if it can fine you in {bit, doge}coin.

I was wavering on whether or not to write about this seeing as that now I have, someone will go off and do it, which suits me fine.

[1] https://github.com/bergcloud/lp-your-best-tweets
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BffgC5DKQG0

Two: 

Secret, the latest reminder that as a species we never learn and are doomed to repeat elementary and easily avoidable mistakes, is best of thought of as a) something that young, inexperienced people come up with because honestly they just don't have the life experience to understand what happens when you allow a pseudonymous large-scale rumour mill; b) thus the equivalent of Penthouse Letters for the Bay Area (it's for entertainment and most of it is made up); c) not a disruptive thing at all and frankly d) something that definitely isn't worth the level of investment that has so far been poured into it.

Three: 

I continue to receive well-meaning notes from a variety of people as to the true civil or non-civil service nature of the UK's Government Digital Service. Now let me draw a line under the matter and make clear what *my* reckon is: the long-term future of the ideals of GDS is only ensured by GDS *being* the civil service. Not separate from. The author will entertain no further correspondence on this subject.

Four:

Over at the regularly too smart and goes woosh over my head blog Ribbonfarm[1], an interesting post about advertising, marketing communications and an inversion from the medium is the message into the message is the medium[2]. Rao's conclusion feels like pulling on the thread of something: increased certainty in execution (which initially I didn't understand, but he backs up with data-driven communications and techniques like a/b testing) and decreased certainty of objective - the latter of which Iain Tait used to describe at work as moving away from the lumpy campaign driven model to one that was more persistent and layered like a lasagne. One of the many things I miss about not working with Tait is his way with meatphors (which I spelt correctly, but then decided to leave because funny). Rao describes the latter as being more-open ended and infinite rather than being spiky, and I have to say that *most* of the clients I've worked with would probably surprise you as to the degree of their lack of visibility into what they think they'll be doing in the future. And it's not always as charitable as being able to say they're "agile".

[1] http://www.ribbonfarm.com/
[2] http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2014/03/20/the-message-is-the-medium/

--

I am on vacation in Missouri, at the grandparents' farm, with the lovely wife and son. There is a road to the south, and at the bottom of the road, a gate.

> South, open gate

You are in a field. There are cows here.

Have a good weekend, everyone, send me more wonderful replies and I'll endeavour to send even more wonderful replies back. 

Best,

Dan