January 31, 2014

Episode Seven: Rate All The Things

1. Rating All The Things

One of the side-effects of believing that the world will be better once we have all the data is the presumption that some of that data needs to be recorded through user rating. So we have Amazon book review star ratings, of which XKCD's cartoon[1] is probably the best at explaining the problem with the five-star-rating-system, essentially that what you think of as a dynamic range from between zero to five stars in half-star increments, effectively only delivers a range of bad, OK and good. Which, if you're aware of, is fine, but the danger is that you're not, so, well, good luck to you and your data mining because your assumptions are flawed.

But then related to rating was my 1%-related noticing in New York last week while taking a quite obscene number of Ubers around the city that the rating system imposed on the drivers (again, five stars) effectively moves a lot of the burden of providing comfort benefits from Uber, on to the driver. I'm pretty sure (but happy to be proven wrong) that it's the drivers themselves who are choosing to outfit their car with a variety of charger cables, fresh bottled water, mints and newspapers. All because drivers are rated by passengers, and Uber uses driver rankings to "constantly improve the rider experience."[2]. Uber drivers, of course, also rate their passengers. Here the inclusion of a rating system helps Uber externalize a cost directly related to the comfort and experience of their customers. Which, I dunno, kind of seems skeezy in this wonderful sharing economy.

And then, and then: the recent eruption of Happy Or Not[3] customer satisfaction devices - standup terminals commonly installed in airports around the security screening section with four faces (two shades of green for very happy and OK, two shades of red for not OK and upset). Happy Or Not (which in and of itself has that kind of Sirius Cybernetics fake humorous personality of a parodic science fiction novel) maintains that they are the "The worldwide solution for continuous customer satisfaction improvement" by essentially being a physical, tactile instantiation of the pain faces scale you might have had the misfortune to encounter in a hospital. 

And then, and then, and then: that pain faces scale you might have encountered is, of course, an intellectual property protected by and marketed by the Wong-Baker Faces Foundation[4] as the Wong-Baker FACES(R) Pain Rating Scale. In which case you might as well give up and assume that someone has already protected Chernoff faces[5] of which my two favorite uses are in BERG's sadly now-defunct Schooloscope[6] and in Peter Watts' Blindsight[7], of which if you haven't read it, oh my god what are you doing reading this, get thee to the author's free ebook or even better, pay money for the damn thing because he deserves it.

The last part of this is the genius suggestion from @skry that if we're going to have to rate all the things, perhaps one more thing that requires disruptive rating is delivery companies like FedEx and UPS: "If UPS wants to improve customer service and delivery driver behavior, they should allow people to rate their deliveries."

[1] http://xkcd.com/1098/
[2] https://www.uber.com/drivers 
[3] http://www.happy-or-not.com
[4] http://www.wongbakerfaces.org
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernoff_face
[6] http://berglondon.com/projects/schooloscope/
[7] http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm
[8] https://twitter.com/skry/status/429054391186759681

2. Google, Nest and Motorola
I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself. I said on Twitter that I didn't have an opinion about Google's Motorola disposal, but the wonderful thing about this newsletter is that I don't have an editor who can help prevent me from making bad decisions. So here are some reckons about Google getting rid of Motorola now that it's got Nest.

First reckon: Gruber's right[1]. Tony Fadell, Nest's CEO, does want to change the world, and the reason why he's not doing it at Apple is that he wants to change the world a different way than Apple does. Apple is not in the business of making Nests, or maybe not even Nest-like things. Apple does a small number of things, in a very slow and deliberate way. And they have to fit in with the rest of the Apple ecosystem, and, for a free bonus reckon in this reckon: Nests and Nest-type things don't fit in Apple's iOS/OS X/iTunes ecosystem (at least, not yet), because: where would Apple stop? Revolutionising the world through smart devices is not, I don't believe, in Apple's current DNA.

Second reckon: Gruber's still right. Google have arguably gotten hold of a much better product team than they did with Motorola (i.e.: an Apple one), and at the same time, one with more focussed leadership that's shown it's able to deliver at least one of the kinds of products that are going to be dominant in the future. Sure, that leadership is concerned with revolutionizing the world through smart devices, but it's a pretty sharp-but-open-ended problem to solve, just like organize-the-world's-information.

Third reckon: So if all of this is true, what's the downside? Google's only successful business right now, the one that's powering its metamorphosis into America's Next Golden Age Of Conglomerates, is the advertising business. Nothing, absolutely nothing else, comes close. This is going to sound a bit Gruber-y, but Apple at least survives if you take away the iPhone or the iPad. Google doesn't survive if you remove its ads sales business. The downside is this, and it's going to sound alarmist and reactionary, but there's one path in which Google genuinely adds a (second?) leg to its one-legged stool, and that's a consumer devices businesses where people pay money for devices. 

But, and here's the big but: do you think Google will do that - i.e., charge full retail non-subsidized, non-advertiser supported prices, when the alternative is to roll the devices into some sort of subsidized plan? Or, what's going to change the world more quickly: free or near to free devices, or retail price devices?

Look: remember those self-driving cars? Here's a patent[2] (which, to be fair, doesn't have to be used - it's just been awarded[3]) for an ad-powered free taxi service. I'm fully prepared to accept that this is Google just covering its ass (while, at the same time, I guess, protesting that the IP setup in the US and the world over thanks to WIPO is less than ideal and they are forced into participating), but really: there are people who are thinking about this instead of not thinking about it.

[1] http://daringfireball.net/linked/2014/01/30/techcrunch
[2] http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/01/google-patents-ad-powered-taxi-service-that-would-offer-free-rides-to-shoppers/
[3] Here's an Apple patent for an ad-supported version of OS X which, now that the free era has been ushered in by Mavericks, probably won't come to pass. Also: tacky.

3. Other Visions Of The Future
Which leads me to this other reckon, or continued thought.

Have we genuinely run out of inspiring visions of the future? I'm going to take a punt and guess that the majority of Google's leadership, in their middle age, are influenced by the science fiction that was prevalent from the seventies through to present day, with the science fiction of the seventies through nineties being recollected as more idealistic due to exposure at an early age.

It may well sound facetious, but the idea that Google's business plan came from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash doesn't feel quite so far off, and if not Google, then any other successful technology company. So don't think I'm singling Google out - just that they're the current figurative elephant/behemoth in the room. And on reflection, I wouldn't even say business plan: I'd say *product roadmap*. Because a business plan implies more of a route toward an end goal, and I don't see the utopian ideals of Star Trek's Federation supported by an search-based, data-backed ad network.

So on the one hand, products get picked out of fiction (yes, Earth, the StarTac, Glass), codenames inevitably betray a sense of inspiration: but those products are all wrenched from the future and, ultimately, grated into a late-stage capitalist, stupendously interconnected and fragile economy based on, of all things, not just people wanting to sell you things, but people wanting to make sure that you pay most attention to their things so that you buy them.

So here's a question: is there anyone teaching us, or showing us, potential roadmaps to that utopian future from which we've accidentally instantiated products, objects and services? Because on the one hand we have Iain M. Banks' wonderful post-scarcity Culture, along with Star Trek, and on the other hand we have Elysium, Moon, Total Recall, Robocop, and Fifth Element. 

Instead of dropping products in from the already-utopian future, which are the ones that are transitional?

(Side note: if you have suggestions of here-to-there science fiction, I'd love to read it...)

4. Amplifying Weak Signals
I got an email (well, all right, a Twitter direct message/push notification/email) from @magicrecs[1] today that didn't make any sense until I Googled it:

"@satyanadella[2] was just followed by @isaach (1m ago), @benwerd, @kevinmarks and 1 more"

Because I checked, and the last time @satyanadella tweeted was on 11 July 2010 (2010!) about something about Bing news (Bing news!) and Google News and, well, it didn't make any sense until Google pointed out that Satya Nadella was, in fact, the front-running candidate to take over the CEO spot at Microsoft.

[1] https://twitter.com/MagicRecs
[2] https://twitter.com/satyanadella


That's it for today. If you've got any good recommendations for science fictional bootstrapping of late-stage capitalist cultures to utopian ideals, that'd be great, thanks.