November 15, 2014

Episode One Hundred and Eighty Five: The Ritual of Dying; The Mission

0.0 Sitrep

6:46pm on a Friday night, over a week after my last episode. I think it's pretty fair to say at this point that it's become difficult to write every day. Probably not impossible - at least, not for the kind of person who looks at Ben Franklin's daily schedule[1]. But in any event: less writing. Probably because there's significantly more writing and more thinking going on elsewhere. Draw from that your own conclusions. 

I'll tell you one thing that's still difficult, though: coming to terms with the fact that the "work" that I do, the "stuff" that I make isn't product-making but more sense-making. It shows up in lots of other things. But even when there's this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when "making things" includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there's still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don't-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff.  

[1] Benjamin Franklin's Daily Schedule - Swissmiss  

1.0 The Ritual of Dying

Philae died ("went to sleep") today[1], and as things are these days, she went to sleep publicly[2], through her Twitter account. 

We're good at this, us humans, putting mind and agency into places where there isn't any. We anthropomorphise lots of things. It started with the space probes with, I think, the Phoenix Mars Lander[3] back in 2008 and, well, it just kept going. One of the more poignant (if not distressing) recent examples was that of the Chinese Space Agency's Jade Rabbit posting "Goodnight, Earth, goodnight, humanity"[4] as a mechanical failure caused it to power-down. And when CSIRO's Mars orbiter arrived, Curiosity greeted it, too[4].

There's a thing here. I said tonight that there's a "ritual of anthropomorphised robotic space probes dying in public on social media."[5]

The idea that as a species we have a practice now - I mean, America's doing it, Europe's doing it, China's doing it, India's doing it: we give our robot probes voices and they're our emissaries. This is citizen science engagement in a way that we haven't really done before, not because we didn't want to, but because we couldn't. But also because there's a gap in what you get from a textual status update: we fill in the voice and the emotion ourselves, and we humans, we're great at looking for patterns and agency when there isn't any. So we'll happily take a vessel like a comet probe and fill it with our own emotions and yearnings. 

Also, don't forget: there's every chance that these accounts are being written and "crewed" by people who know what they're doing. We are undoubtedly being manipulated - at least in as much as we're manipulated any time someone tries to communicate with us. There's a mental state that someone or something is trying to transfer. 

So this is the ritual: we offer up a scientific endeavour and give it a voice. And then we have to kill that voice and feel terrible for it. I mean, can you imagine? The idea of reality tv show funded space exploration for *humans* is pretty old hat - but right now we have reality shows of robot probes doing exploration. Arthur C Clarke wouldn't have imagined there being a job for someone to take what a probe was doing and translate it into the first person, and for that first-person account to *hook* millions of people around the world. What a bizarre thing to do. But now, with hindsight, it seems all so obvious. 

Look, I can do it too. We take these robots. They're not human. They're frequently written to be lonely, separated from us by distances that no human has ever really been able to comprehend, and may not be able to comprehend for tens or hundreds of years. They're written to embody the hopes and dreams of hundreds or thousands of people who have worked and dedicated their lives to a single scientific endeavour. We know space is cold, dangerous, inhospitable. And they're so *alone*. 

It's almost as if we can send humanity as a proxy, through these little robots and then cut them loose. All without risking any lives. 

[1] Rosetta mission: Philae goes to sleep on comet as batteries run out - The Guardian
[2] https://twitter.com/philae2014/status/533423541413502976
[3] Wired Science Scores Exclusive Twitter Interview with the Phoenix Mars Lander
[3] China's imperiled Jade Rabbit moon rover: 'Goodnight, humanity' - CNN
[4] https://twitter.com/marscuriosity/status/514611142178516993
[5] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/533446792637984768

2.0 The Mission

At work, doing a thing. The thing mainly being: what is it that we do, and why? Never mind the how. But then also working out how to explain to them *exactly* what "the strategy is delivery" means. Because you can deliver lots of things. How do you know you're delivering the right thing? What does iterate mean anyway? And then, once we agree on those things, how do we move forward? Deliver understanding. Deliver the ability to copy. Deliver training? Can you even deliver training if it's not being applied? Is training that is delivered, but not applied, even effective in the first place? If the goal is to deliver *better government*, then does what's being proposed actually deliver that, or actually have a chance of delivering that? 

So yeah, the mission. What do we do, and why? 

--

7:09pm. Shorter, more frequently. Let's try that as an experiment. 

Dan