Unchecked Attention Avarice

Current Status: Much more this than this, but man, who wouldn’t want to be at the base of Chimborazo at least once in their life? That second link is the shadow of a Google Maps footsoldier looking up at this. Majestic!

Is it time for a mixpost? I think it’s time for a mixpost. I haven’t done one of these since June (although the post I published after my sabbatical was kind of a mixpost). Anyway. You don’t care about the format. You just care about the ideas… Right?

CB, March 17, 2016


Track (1)
Wherefore, technology?

On that note, I’ve heard from some readers who say I don’t write enough about technology. This is a fascinating comment! My précis has always been, “design, technology, and being human,” as in, I’m interested in all three, individually and together. I haven’t felt that I’ve preferred or neglected one subject for another. But out of curiosity, I counted. So far this year, out of seven letters, two are exclusively about technology, two are firmly in the “being human” category, and one is expressly about design. That leaves two others, which are a mix — one of design and technology, the other of technology and “being human.” So by that count, four out of seven letters are about technology. More than half! That seems about right to me. (And for what it’s worth, twenty-one of the thirty-five letters I sent last year were about technology.)

Anyway. A thing everyone seems to be talking about right now is whether productivity is higher today than it was in the past, and what role technology plays in that. Some people think that technology is responsible for major gains in productivity. Some other people disagree. I tend to be among the skeptics.

The true believers, first of all, tend to live and work in a certain place named for a certain chemical element. They’re a little biased in their thinking, of course, but not just because they have a vested interest in the culture-shaping power of technology, but because they believe in a certain form of technology. The technological boom of the last thirty years has been in computers and communication.

But isn’t technology more than computers?

Isn’t technology also how we shelter, feed, clothe and move ourselves around? Isn’t it also about how we stay well and heal ourselves?

It’s so much more than just how we talk to one another, express ourselves, and be entertained. And yet, we can’t figure out the productivity impact of technology because technological innovation isn’t evenly distributed and isn’t evenly understood.

As Tyler Cowen has written in his most recent book (that I haven’t read in full, tbh), “A lot of our recent innovations are ‘private goods’ rather than ‘public goods’…that benefit some individuals but are not public goods more generally.”

After all, it’s not as if there haven’t been advances in all areas of technology over the course of our lives. The question is whether they have contributed to a net productivity gain.

But it’s interesting. Where advances have offered improvements in one area, other advances undermine them. Clothing, for instance: Thanks to better material science, better fibers, better fabrication processes, and better ways of creating awareness, small companies offering high-performance, long-lasting garments are proliferating like mad. Forever-wear is a thing now. But at the very same time, advances in material science, the globalization of logistics, and the same better ways of creating awareness have enabled much bigger companies to produce more garments, faster and cheaper than ever before. And so while forever-wear is a thing, so is throwaway fashion. And since one is cheap and abundant and the other expensive and scarce, I’d say this one is a net loss.

You could apply the same sort of analysis to every other area “technology” touches. Technology has given us many tools to fight disease, for example, yet few of them are as effective as better choices in diet and exercise. Technology gives us faster and cheaper homes, but devalues goods and services en masse such that we can’t afford to buy them. And as Peter Thiel has pointed out, we have fancier cars, but we’re not getting anywhere any faster.

The debate makes me wonder, what is the goal of technology? Is it to increase productivity? Or is it to reduce work? Can it be both? If technology helps us do more with less effort, what do we do with the savings? Do we use it on more work? Or do we spend it on leisure? And what sort of modern leisure isn’t made possible by a ton of work?

Or, is all of that irrelevant? Is technology simply an existential byproduct, an expression of the human mind? Food for thought. But that’s certainly — for me, anyway — the tie that binds design, technology, and being human.


Track (2)
World In My Eyes

This year’s CES and South by Southwest were, as far as I can tell, all about virtual reality. Especially South by Southwest (which I refuse to call SouthBy and especially refuse to write as… ah crap). Anyway, VR is so hot right now. And I assume “hot” because it’s this big thing you have to strap on your face and either connect to a big ol’ computer (Oculus) or put your phone in it (others). Totally the future, right? Hey, kids, in the future, we’re all going to tie telephones to our faces and pretend that we’re somewhere else!

But to be fair, VR is just getting started. It’s only been, what? Twenty-four years since The Lawnmower Man? Can you give it a second? IT’S GOING TO YOUR FACE! CAN YOU GIVE IT A SECOND? Seriously, though, VR is going to be huge for games and movies, for sure. I mean, 3D TVs completely failed to gain any traction whatsoever but this will totally catch on because we’re all like, if I’m going to put something on my face to watch TV at home, it better weigh five pounds and leave a mark.

In the meantime, all the VR hype has me thinking about social media. I actually think that VR could be bigger there than anywhere else. Let me explain…

Have you ever seen Surrogates? No? Well, let me save you an hour and forty-four minutes: It’s a really dumb movie with Bruce Willis about how in the future, we’ll hide in our homes while projecting out on to the world a tightly controlled, idealized version of ourselves. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT FACEBOOK, guys. In Surrogates we do it with robots. Yes, robots that look like us on steroids and airbrushing, while we sit at home, unshaven with a joystick and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

Neat idea. But if you’ve ever seen a contemporary robot or “android” at its best, it’s clear we’re not anywhere near that sort of future. (Which is good, because — spoiler alert! — the Surrogates robots shit the bed and people die.) And it’s not just a technical hurdle between us and Surrogates. There’s a social one, too. It’s one thing to crop and filter our avatars and post only when we’re #winning, but it’d be another thing to go Surrogates full-time. Who wants to do that?

Oh, right. Everyone who’s on Snapchat! (Ok, not everyone, but…)

Snapchat is about broadcasting your life in pieces. Your life in images and ten-second videos, with the safety of a little latency and an expiration date. Controlled as that still is, the overall effect is vicarious _______. Vicarious wonder, fear, joy, sadness, lolz. When I pull up a friend’s “story” in Snapchat, I get the last 24 hours of the world through their eyes, albeit in fits and bursts. Well, imagine Snapchat + VR.

In a way, that’s kind of what Periscope is. Or maybe you can think of Periscope as SnapchatVR’s beta. Someone once once described Periscope to me as “Snapchat, but in realtime.” So imagine Snapchat in realtime, like Periscope, but bigger, faster, longer, realer. Or, like if William Gibson had written Avatar. No Pandora, no unobtanium, no Na’vi. Just us, here, our attention avarice unchecked.

We already wear cameras and broadcast our experiences, and our “friends” already sit at home and watch the world through our eyes. But VR is going to transform that experience from voyeurism to cosplay. It won’t be “My Story” anymore, it’ll be “My Life.” It won’t be watch me, it’ll be be me.

Naturally, the pinnacle of social VR will be celebrity accounts. I mean, why would you want to experience the world as me, when you could experience it as Beyonce?

Oh, and yes, there will be a moral panic about this.

Track (3)

As I’m sure you could tell, I’m not that enthusiastic about VR. It’s a bunch of things that turn me off. It’s another screen — that’s one thing — and there’s the whole strapping-it-to-my-face thing, and there’s the fact that it — more than any other media — monopolizes your attention. I mean, ain’t gonna be any “multitasking” with an Oculus, or even ambient awareness. To me, it seems like the entirely wrong direction for us to go in now that we’re past the orientation-weekend phase of the internet and realize that, oh, right, we’re paying to be here and better, you know, go the eff to bed/get the eff to work. It’s the wrong direction because the internet binge we’ve been on takes more than it gives.

You can pretend that tab-surfing is multitasking, but the fact is that no matter how many things you’re reading, writing, clicking, tapping, liking and sharing, the machine has all of you. Meanwhile, natural language processing is progressing in leaps and bounds and its entire premise is around freeing us from touch and vision-based human/computer interactions. If you can speak to a machine, and if the machine can speak to you, the time you could save in the aggregate is enormous. Echo fans are like, hey, that exists!!! And there are some baby boomers who are like, yes, we love Siri! Well, that’s nice. But Siri is just a sketch compared to what is very, very close. Echo is closer, and what’s especially interesting is that Amazon is creating something more than just a device. It’s a platform. If you’re a developer, you can write an Echo app that lets me interact with it purely with my voice. That’s exactly what I want. I want to come home and say to my Sonos system, play that Herbie Hancock album I was listening to last night or turn on NPR. And then I want to walk in to my kitchen and say, run the dishwasher. And then I want to go upstairs to change and say, lights on. No hands. No screens. And yes, before you all email me to tell me WE ALREADY HAVE ALL THAT! I am aware of “smart home” systems, but none are particularly comprehensive, none are particularly good, and all are closed systems. Echo is apparently going the platform route, which means that it (and its satellite devices) could let me distribute NLP throughout my home in the same way Sonos lets me distribute music. And I’m into that, though I’m not happy that it seems it will come at the cost of privacy. Wherever I’ll be able to talk to the machines, the people behind the machines will be able to listen. No thank you.

In any case, real, distributed NLP platforms are probably going to be bigger than VR. And they, too, will probably have a huge impact on social media. Imagine Twitter + Echo. That’s basically a constant, personal podcast!

Track 4
Jonesin’ for that Jones

So Indy is coming back in 2019.

Harrison Ford will be 77 years old. Which is old. Almost twice the age he was when he made the first Indiana Jones movie. But I don’t think that’s a problem. I think it could make for the best Indiana Jones movie ever if they go full old-man with it.

I grew up with Indiana Jones. He was the hero of my childhood. I won’t say I didn’t like the action — I did — but for me, the best sequences of Indiana Jones movies are the quieter, slower ones. The staff of Ra lesson with army intel in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The nocturnal activities scene in Temple of Doom. The library scavenger hunt scene in Last Crusade. And so many more! Sure, the action was great, but the mysteries, the hunts, the artifacts, and the discoveries were all even better. And all just as good, if not better, with an old man at the center.

Indiana Jones 5 does not need a young actor to inherit Indy’s hat and whip and throw punches. Indiana Jones 5 needs a serious dose of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As in, a great mystery. Not a pseudo mystery with a macguffin and a bunch of silly chases. A great mystery, slowly deconstructed and pieced back together. An artifact that opens up something big, strange, and awe-inspiring. Something that matters to an old man. And if they’re courageous about it, this story would be about Indiana Jones; it would begin and end with him. He can’t live forever. This next one is going to have to end, literally, with his end.

But here’s an idea: If they want to have their cake and eat it too — meaning, if they want to keep their franchise — then Indy can die alone, unseen and undiscovered. With no-one to see him go, officially, someone else can pick it up and be him. They can begin a secret succession of Joneses, each becoming him and preserving his immortality, kind of like what they’ve done with Bond, but even more like what the shadowy cabal of visitors to the grave of Edgar Allen Poe were up to for seventy-five years.

So bring on Indy 5. Leave George Lucas out. Leave Shia LaBeouf out. Don’t try to work Chris Pine in for a sentimental passing of the whip. Let Indy die and then bring him back sometime later. We’ll accept that, I think.

Track (5)
A random list of things I’m interested in right now

Navajo weaving patterns, alternative phone design, lucid dreaming, oatmeal, permaculture.



Recent Tabs: A Letter to a Drowning Agency Principal. Medium isn’t growing community. Hate to say I told you so, like Derek, the guy who wrote that piece, but I told you so. A Never-Ending Story on Ad-Blockers. This week, in Fake AI. This week, in While We’re At It, We Might As Well Make Reality A Living Nightmare For Insects, Too. This week, in There Is No Market For People Who Want To Be Fed Tomatoes By A Wearable Robot While They Run. This week in, Or You Could Just Make a Damn Salad Yourself. I love this piece on the digital/physical flip-flop by Robin Sloan. Make sure to watch the video of veteran street dancers in Oakland, CA toward the bottom of the page. Restaurant Reviews from John Muir, Conservationist. Resting Hitch Face. Human/Robot Interactions. This is a real bird that exists in the world. Julie Rubicon.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 17, 2016,   In Essays

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