June 19, 2014

Episode One Hundred and Five: This Incredible Journey; What Comes First; Who Owns The Robots

1.0 This Incredible Journey

A good (I hope!) friend of mine runs the Tumblr Our Incredible Journey[1] and has recently found that they've needed to explain[2] what, exactly an Incredible Journey is. You should go read that explanation, but the gist of it is this:

The "Incredible Journey" construct is drawing attention to the now-cliche of a startup exiting through acquisition and closing down its service, shuttering everything and essentially deleting data. It's a bait-and-switch. Founders are typically *very excited* and honored to become part of the acquiring company and they write effusively about the new opportunities afforded to them. 

But, all of this comes at a cost: the time, data and effort expended by that now closed service is now lost. It's a model that's repeating because the Valley has a particular model of emphasising growth over (profitable) revenue, where the big plan is an exit and other forms of less hard cash value. 

This is also, it feels like, a protuberance of the Californian Ideology again. In the world that practically worships a utilitarian view of ethics, it doesn't matter if a small number of users lose out if the acquisition and closure of service is to deliver a bigger vision to more people. It's always the next thing, the big thing, the growth thing. 

And I get to bang my empathy/sympathy drum a bit more and perhaps revisit the whole value exchange again. User data generates value. That value can be captured in lots of different ways - from advertising revenue against present or future value, or in terms of demonstrating the capability of a team to execute against a product definition to show their value to a potential acquirer. 

It's almost like a mating dance - I used to love the description of the language that Stephen Baxter used in his Phase Space/Time/Space/Origin collection of books of Sheena 5 and the uplifted squids: "Court me. Court me. See my weapons! I am strong and fierce."[3] 

"Look at the users we attracted! See their data! Admire the way we execute onboarding processes!"

All of that to preen and to position for talent acquisition - in the worst cases, of course - where users are but collateral damage. So Incredible Journey, in that TRON way, fights for the user, stands to remind that they exist, that there *was* a value exchange and no, it wasn't explicit, and that what was poured into that startup's mating attractor was human endeavour that's now gone, forever. And for what.

[1] http://ourincrediblejourney.tumblr.com/

[2] http://ourincrediblejourney.tumblr.com/post/89180616013/what-is-an-incredible-journey

[3] http://www.vondanmcintyre.com/squids/baxter-sheena5.html

2.0 What Comes First

I'm reading Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace's book, Creativity, Inc.[1] (You should buy it - click that link!) at the moment. Anyone who's followed this newsletter for a while, or knows me well enough, knows that I'm a stupendous Pixar fan - not just because of the movies that they've produced, but because of *how* they've produced them and the creativity and culture that they foster in their production. I'm also lucky enough to know a friend at Pixar who's been gracious enough to show me around a couple of times, both of which have been nigh-on religious experiences. 

I used to think that my former employer, Wieden+Kennedy, was close to Pixar in terms of culture, and after reading Catmull's book, I'm not as sure. I realise that all of this is now also through the lens of layoffs, but there were a couple of clarifications and areas that I've seen in Catmull's telling of how he's tried to nurture a constantly changing, evolving, adaptive and curious culture at Pixar.

W+K has this motto that "the work comes first" and it's frequently used to justify things like pushing off client meetings because the work isn't ready yet. That's one of the good qualities about the place: that it's willing to wait and perfect the work and when it's ready to share with a client - when it's good enough - *then* it will be presented. We were reminded, of course, that it also cut the other way: we might be persuaded that the work we had conceived of was to be protected and to fight tooth and nail for it against the client, persuading them of its value and ability to solve the particular communications problem. But at the same time, we had to recognise that creating *better* work, that *better* solved the problem was also a way out. 

While both organisations share a commitment to quality and craft, I do see something unique in the way that Catmull describes what he considers to be more important - people or ideas. In Catmull's mind, the answer, hands down, is: people. Ideas aren't out there, waiting to be discovered. The new has to be painfully created, wrought out of not necessarily nothingness, but synthesised and birthed. And I think birthed is the right kind of metaphor: to start from a tiny seed and to be grown in fits and starts - but then the metaphor falls down, because (and I agree with Catmull here) - we don't know where we're going. We might know we're going *forward* - or more accurately, we might know that we're *moving* - but we might not know where we're going to end up, and it's continual acts of course correction that make sure that we make land. 

But ultimately, those ideas come from people. They aren't there to be discovered by just anyone. And people are thus the most important resource of any creative organisation. There are numerous other factors involved - the way Catmull talks about creating an atmosphere that's receptive to and able to produce candor is fantastic. I highly recommend reading the book if you're involved in any creative endeavour whatsoever. 

So no, I no longer believe the work comes first. I believe the people do, and Catmull does a good job of showing how hard it is to actually *act* in a way that demonstrates that people come first. And not just some people, but all people, in a way that requiring everyone who's contributing to producing a feature film needs to feel like a team to work like a perfectly oiled machine. And, perfectly oiled machines still make noises. 

One of the other things that stuck with me was a saying that Catmull attributed to Lasseter: "Art challenges Technology, Technology Inspires Art". It's the kind of quote that, like "Standing at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology" feels like it speaks tremendously to me. 

One of the things that I loved about being at Wieden was working with storytellers who would get inspired by technology and wanted to do things with it. It was interesting because at the time, like most other agencies, we were figuring out what our role was in "digital" and "interactive". I had come from a non-advertising background, a startup background, and had never really intended to end up in advertising. And yet, the chance to work with some of the best storytellers in the world and *inspire* them with technology and then produce *new kinds of storytelling* that pushed technology, created new kinds of story, new ways of telling story - that was the promise that brought me to the agency. I would love to be able to say: look at what we can do now. Look at these things. And look how you could bring them alive! And for us to make them live, to make them sing, to make them *move* people, we can only do it with storytelling *and* technology. That was the promise, and it extended through not just storytelling but through services and products that used the best of storytelling to solve problems. That was what got me excited.

I've gone through the startup mill twice - once at Mind Candy, as second to my founding CEO, building up a team with him, and the second time with my brother at Six to Start. Both times, some of the most rewarding experiences I've had have been when I've brought teams together, inspired them and led them to make fantastic things. Sometimes those things were too early, sometimes they weren't fantastic enough. And almost embarrassingly,  one of the times I knew that I'd succeeded in helping to build a close-knit team was when we were running close to the wind, again, at Six to Start (it's never a good idea to start a company in a down economy) and it was time to have The Talk about the cashflow problems we were facing. As a manager and owner having gone through the process of making sure that everyone else is paid before you are, having people say that they would work for you *for free* through this difficult period was incredibly moving. And we would say: that isn't the point. You're supposed to get paid. We're all supposed to get paid. 

There are times when I know that I'm doing the best I could be though, and all I can do is try and remember for next time. So one of the hardest things for me to learn when I arrived at W+K Portland was that I was a director now, and that I wasn't necessarily *doing the work*. It wasn't my job to solve the problem, because I had incredibly talented, smart, more than competent people on my team who were more than capable of solving them problem themselves. As someone who loves solving problems, that was one of the hardest things to give up - I love being at the whiteboard and sketching out how things might work. But over time, I learned that as a director, my role had changed and that it was now different: that it was giving guidance and not doing the work. 

But part of me still wants to do that: still wants to build a team from the ground up, to solve big problems, to make a big difference. And part of it is because again, some of the best and most personally rewarding experiences (and, to be honest, shit-bricking experiences) have been the "how do we react in a crisis moments" of pulling a team together and showing clarity, direction and that there's a way out of the situation that we're in. That we might feel like we're stuck, but we're still a team and if we all start moving, it's all going to be OK and we're going to make land. 

And then there are things like realising: valuing the people at an organisation is as much as knowing who's a good fit and that what's good for *them* might be for them not to remain. It may well be that my former employer has decided that their core is advertising, and while the things that I wanted to do there were indeed great ways of solving client problems, they were a step to far in terms of reach of what they wanted to do. They are, and perhaps always will be, an advertising agency, not the kind of company that makes products or services because that office is, at its heart, passionate and exists to make storytelling. 

That's something that I did get from Catmull's book - Pixar didn't suffer from an existential crisis. It's not so much about navigating change in a changing business environment in the way that ad agencies are still having to do. Pixar always knew what it wanted to do: it wanted to make the best computer animated movies. The challenge for an advertising agency like Wieden is: it used to be clear what advertising was. It still is, in a way, clear what advertising is. But the advent of "digital" and "interactive" has meant that that line has blurred, and the agency has to decide where it wants to hang its hat. Its competitors are all trying to build products and services and it has to preserve what is core and true to itself. 

For me, it's clear now that that's *advertising*. And advertising doesn't at its core have products and services. Advertising is a communication business, and brand advertising doubly so. To say that communication can occur inside of services and products is of course true, but they're not easy forms of communication to buy from the outside. They are big, hard problems to solve. Especially when those channels might already exist. 

I wouldn't be surprised if I do a startup again. I know my wife wouldn't be. I feel like I'm quietly waiting, like a seed, for the right conditions. For the right time to take that step again. And then I'll bloom.

[1] Amazon: http://amzn.to/1lB5X3w

3.0 Who Owns The Robots

That's the sting of Alex Payne's well-written critique[1] of Marc Andreessen's optimistic position on the big-picture success of capitalism in pulling *humanity's* (note: not different states) standard of living up over the past hundred years or so. 

The question that I've always been asking is this: what sort of society do we want to create? Because (surprise) we have the power (in theory) to create the sort of society we want (if, I guess, you ignore the somewhat worrying studies that show that in late-stage capitalist democracies like the US, an individual's vote is somewhat... less than effective). 

I do think that there are some issues that aren't covered in Payne's essay. Namely that yes: labor wants self-determination, but one of the things that labor *doesn't* get, is to choose the environment that it finds itself in. None of us do. And yes, while the pushback may be on exploitative business models, the issues around a company like Uber are complex. Because Uber is playing a long game, a longer game than, I would venture, the average taxi driver would be expected to play. What I mean by that is: Uber's appetite is big, obviously and demonstrably so. It is also being *encouraged* to have a big appetite. What a lot of people see is the prototypical "disruption" in a market that hasn't had software eat it yet. But again, software that driving taxis does it in a bunch of different ways. It does it in the long-term where Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, admits that of course Uber's future is in self-driving cars. 

The kind of self-determination that labor is talking about in Payne's case needs to necessarily encompass: what sort of labor does a self-determining individual want to do when taxi-driving is something that has become automated? 

And to remember this: Uber's goal isn't to provide a great working environment for drivers. It isn't even to ensure that drivers have a job. Taxicab companies have that requirement, but again, Uber's appetite is bigger.

Payne, I think, has identified the problem with the whole "technological gains will increase productivity that will pay for the future safety net". That's the post-scarcity argument: that at some magical point in the future, someone flicks a switch and everything becomes free. Not that we live through an incredibly painful period of transition that's within our power to smooth out. Not that those types of technological change happen everywhere at the same time. There's a reason why everyone keeps quoting Gibson's "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." 

It's that in the *entire history of mankind* we've never been good at distributing. There is no reason to believe, in the same way that Payne puts forward, that the magical robot future will lead to even distribution of technological advancements. Sure, capitalism and the market might be a way to achieve *faster* distribution than ever before given that we live in a more interconnected infrastructural world, but that's only an improvement *inside the framework of capitalism*. 

What happens if you want to distribute that change *faster* than the way that capitalism can allow? Or can we only think inside of the market (sorry, share) economy box?

And, of course, there was the whole notion of the sharing economy lurking in the background. There's a reason, I believe, that we're calling it the sharing economy and not the peer economy as some used to. It's because it sounds better. It sounds nicer. It sounds warmer. It ticks off all the right *brand values*. 

But the peer economy - well, we would have to explain what peers are, right? That peers are equal? Oh, they're not equal? Some are more equal than others? That's the reality that the Bitcoin community are coming to face with the news that there's a mining bloc that had the majority of blockchain processing: that's not distributed peer-to-peer based cryptocurrency. It's the start of centralised control. A single point of failure. 

So no, we don't have peer economies anymore. We have sharing markets. And we don't have the concept of a peer. 

You want more disruption? You start closing the loop and allowing microloans to enable people to buy their own airbnb property to rent out, right? And not doing it through mortgage providers. Maybe that's closer to a peer economy. Or you allow microloans to enable people to pull together community resources to build Ubers. Or, you build an open-source Uber clone (because hey, you could do that, right?) and let the drivers compete against Uber. Because we're sharing, right?

[1] https://al3x.net/2014/06/17/dear-marc-andreessen.html

--

Send me notes. They power me. Like little midichlorians.

Dan