- The last post was supposed to be drawing a line under the whole "looking back" theme, but… In the last week or so, we have seen Radiohead release a new album, the Stone Roses and Super Furry Animals release new singles, the Spice Girls are apparently making a record… Nothing about that sentence would have looked out of place 20 years ago. Now admittedly, plenty of the musical artists that were big 20 years before that were still going in 1996 (its actually kind of surprising how many are still going today), but it still feels like a strangely retro-flavoured week. I'm pretty sure that if someone had told me that was what was going to be happening 20 years into the future, I would have been surprised. But I guess I would also have expected there to be other things going on in the world of music that I would at least have known about… (Albeit on a news cycle dictated by the monthly magazine publications…)
- Speaking of which, I'm still on the fence about the new Stone Roses song. I don't think that its as good as the old stuff, but I have 20+ years of the old stuff accompanying me along all the big events in my life, I know every moment of every record backwards, so nothing is every going to be that good to me, especially after one listen. I don't think its bad… But… Well, I can't figure out why it doesn't seem to have a verse. I think my issue with it is that Ian Brown went down a pretty experimental road (say what you will about Unfinished Monkey Business, it wasn't predictable), while John Squire went down a much more 'traditional' road with the Seahorses… and I think I wish the Roses reunion had been a bit more Ian Brown than John Squire. It sounds like Ian Brown singing a Seahorses song. Oh – and if someone told me that Reni wasn't actually playing drums on the record, I don't think I would be massively surprised. Still cautiously optimistic about the idea of an album - even if its only because it feels like, given the time that they have had to play around with it, it should give everyone a chance to shine rather than be driven by a single personality. (And if there is one track that gives Reni a chance to shine, it will all have been worth it. Seriously)
- 20 years ago, Apple Computers was in near-terminal decline, had pretty much zero market presence in the UK, Steve Jobs was gone, and it looked like the business was going to be about as relevant in the future as Sinclair. In 2016, thats where I went to buy the Stone Roses single. Didn't see that one coming…
- Oh - I've got one recent music-related story I'm aware of; Azealia Banks got kicked off Twitter, for saying racist and homophobic things to a member of a boy band who got big by being a runner-up in a TV talent contest. Thats kind of about the world of music, even if it doesn't actually involve any music… Throw in the fact that she is a bisexual hip-hop star who is very outspoken about African-American issues and you would have the kind of story that I think my 20-years-ago-self would have assumed would make sense to me in a more enlightened future. (But doesn't really.) Anyway - the linked article about the whole Twitter thing is well worth a read.
- Anyway – there is a general point I'm circling around here, which is that its not just hard to see what the world is going to look like in the space of a generation or so; lots that you would think would change won't, and lots that you wouldn't think would change will. It isn't just a case of predicting the winners and losers, because often the whole game changes shape. John Naughton has posted the text of a speech he made recently about the evolution of the internet1 which gives some pretty good points to think about around where this technology could be heading – or more to the point, how society could be changing shape around the technology. The key point is that the internet has become a General Purpose Technology, which means that its impact on the world goes way beyond the domain of computers or telecommunications. I particularly liked the quote about how "companies that aren’t Internet companies won’t be companies at all" (although the timescale was way off…) – a few years ago, I think the idea that electric cars would be disrupting the automotive industry and a smartphone app-based business would be disrupting taxis would have seemed like a "10-20 years in the future" kind of story; Tesla and Uber seem to have snapped that into a much nearer-term kind of future. Today, it seems kind of obvious.
But the bit that I find really interesting is the bit inbetween; what are the small decisions being made today that are going to have a big effect on the future. When the packet-switching network was being developed in the 1960s, it was definitely not obvious that it was going to be a success, let alone what the implications of its success would be on world-wide telecommunications. But looking back, history seems much more like a straight and predestined path.
My best illustration for the idea; what would the world be like today if Google didn't exist? 2 We wouldn't have that particular search engine dominating the online landscape, obviously… but what would we have in its place? Would another company have developed a search engine that tied web crawling with using inbound links as a measure of authority? Would the front page of the internet have stayed as it was before Google, dominated by the 'manual curation' model that the likes of Yahoo were pushing, tied to 'Portals', and driven by broadcast-like media models? What would the internet have looked like if data-driven response advertising hadn't been such a massive part of the Dotcom boom? (Would there even have been a Dotcom boom?) What about the second-order effects; if we didn't have Google's search engine technology, what would it have meant for website discovery? What would website design look like if SEO was never a 'thing'? Would Tim Berners-Lee's idea of the machine-readable semantic web have taken off if Google hadn't provided an alternative solution to the problem it was addressing? And if nothing else had been different, what if nobody had been pushing a 'free'(ish) open-source mobile operating system to compete with the closed-source models?
Does Google (or rather, Alphabet) count as a 'General Purpose Technology'? Perhaps 'General Purpose Company' is a thing now…
- On a similar theme, Benedict Evans has a blog post up about inevitability in technology, and those kind of counter-faactual historical questions, with an interesting look at where Facebook might be today if they hadn't picked up Instagram and Whatsapp. (Spoiler: Not necessarily #1 in Active Users.) But the key point for me is China, and how different it is to the west; "We think of the portal model as a dead-end, but half a billion Chinese Internet users suggest that it could have been otherwise. The Chinese internet is a great way to challenge your thinking on what's inevitable in technology - it's a living counterfactual."
Also, a quote from a different Ben Evans post: "Nokia and Blackberry were skating to where the puck was going to be, and felt nice and fast and in control, while Apple and Google were melting the ice rink and switching the game to water-skiing. "
- While I'm on the subject of parallel evolution (weak link, sorry), octopuses are crazy. I mean, "8 arms" is a pretty weird thing on its own, that gets even weirder when you discover that a big part of octopus brains are in their arms 3, they can squeeze through tiny gaps, change their colour and texture in the blink of an eye in a camouflage trick that makes chameleons look about as clever as an ostrich with its head in the sand (which is a myth, obviously), or disguise themselves as rocks but time their movement along the sea bed to synchronise with the movement of the sunlight through the waves so it looks like they aren't actually moving. And they have three hearts, which beats Doctor Who by 50%. And they have really weird parenting skills that seem to involve giving birth, stopping eating and then either dying of starvation or blowing her babies away and then dying of some kind of shock/heartache, which means that they aren't really learning anything from their parents, so all their skills seem to be based on pure instinct.
Everything about octopuses is weird. (Further reading, and some more)
But the really weird thing; despite evolving along a completely separate pathway to humans (being invertebrates, our closest common ancestor was probably some kind of worm-like creature about 750 million years ago), they share some key features with humans; a closed circulatory system, eyes with an iris, retina and lens (our common ancestor probably had nothing more sophisticated than some light-sensitive patches of skin), a large brain (although theirs are partly surrounding their oesophagus, and a large amount of it is out it their arms), and a similar neural network that enables them to adapt and learn; they can do things like open jars, use tools and solve puzzles. Basically, if you want a thought experiment in how completely different alien life might be, octopuses are probably a good place to start looking.
- So, back to smaller-scale, technology-type things; I'm writing this while sitting next to my wife, with a laptop each and a digital camera. She wants to get the photos off the camera and onto her laptop. Except for some reason, plugging it in via USB isn't working. So, I plug it into mine - the camera appears, then disappears. Seems that the USB cable is dodgy, which wouldn't be a problem if it was a USB mini-B (which I've got loads of from old pre-iPhone smartphones, bits of music kit and pretyt much any gadget more than about 5 years old), or USB micro-B (which I've got loads of from newer kids toys, Blackberrys and Samsung Android phones.) But no - its… well, I don't really know what it is.4 But whatever it is, it doesn't seem to work and I don't think I have an alternative cable… But it does have the ability to transfer over wifi to a smartphone with an app installed and connected to its own wifi network, which doesn't actually help get them onto a laptop… But thats fine, because my laptop has a built-in SD card reader, which isn't going to help next time she wants to get a photo off the camera, but for now its good. I can just connect to her laptop with Airdrop and wirelessly send her the pictures… Except, for some reason, she sees me in Airdrop, but I don't see her. So, I set up a shared Dropbox folder to drop the pictures in, which means a bit of back-and-forth with emails to confirm an invitation, and I've managed to get the photos on her laptop.
This seems like pretty normal problem-solving behaviour to me, but along the way it has involved servers in at least 2 different continents and literally sending the photos all the way around the world and back again to get them onto a laptop that I can literally reach over and touch. (I just touched it, just to make the point to myself.)
Now, rewind 30 years to when the latest innovation in my computing world was the ZX Spectrum +2 with 128k and a built-in tape player, and I'm trying to imagine what that story from 30 years in the future would sound like to me. I'm guessing it would sound boring and pointless, and I would quickly go from wondering why whoever designed my wife's computer of the future didn't include any kind of removable disk drive to wondering why sending the photos all the way around the world seemed like a quicker and easier thing to do than either getting up and getting one of the many USB drives on my desk, or reaching across and using the 2 terabyte hard drive that is literally within arms reach, but I had completely forgotten about.5
- Google have created a new keyboard for iOS (well, for iPhone really - apparently its crap on the iPad.) Sounds like a combination of useful features with more privacy control than you might expect from something that could let Google track every single thing you type (although policies can always change…) The thing I don't understand though – why not make this available outside of the US? I'm sure it won't take long to get a wider release but… just, why?
- The 'brands pretending to be your friend' thing might be coming to a close – replaced with brands pretending to be artisanal hipsters. The one thing I definitely disagree with in this piece is that Costa coffee is pretty good.
- On a similar note; Service work is skilled work. Get over it. I do think that making good coffee is in a weird position right now; on one hand, its easy for those of us who used to make cups of filter coffee for a living to mock those who are now making patterns in cappucinos… but having spent a few years trying to get the most out of a home espresso machine, I think the real point of the whole latte art thing is that you can't do it unless you've managed to do a good job of making the steamed milk; its a bit like the shamrock on top of a pint of Guinness, in that its a sign that you've learnt how to pour a pint of Guinness properly and then learnt how to do a shamrock on top. But the wider point is that there is the kind of service work that you can do when you are a reasonably irresponsible teenager/young adult where you just need to achieve basic competence (like making a jug of filter coffee and pouring it into a cup), and there is the kind of service work that takes a degree of skill to do properly (like make a good cup of coffee with a properly-made espresso, properly steamed milk, and properly combined in a cup.) I guess its a shame that for all that the coffee industry has done in the UK over the last decade or so, most coffee is still served in a paper cup with a lid on the top…
I do find it weird that the article doesn't mention "transferrable skills" at any point though. It feels like its a pretty important issue for the topic.
- While in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I noticed the Zynga offices - a massive building in a prominent, central location, which seemed kind of weird considering that the days of Farmville seem to be some way behind us now. Turns out, if you take away the cash in the bank, the office is worth more than the company. (I don't know if that says more about the rapidly changing San Francisco property prices or the rapidly changing casual gaming industry.) Apparently they won't be there for long though. It seems that despite the amount of money you can make by making a massively successful casual game, making a massively succesful casual game isn't actually proof that you know how to make a massively succesful casual game.
- I saw this story shared around on Facebook, about how a woman learnt about her mother's life through her laptop. Now, on one hand it reminded me of the only YouTube comment I have ever seen that was worth reading. But on the other, it made me think about the impression someone would get from going through my laptop — the unfinished work (personal and professional), the "music" I recorded that was just me trying to figure out how my USB audio interface worked, right next to the stuff I've recorded while trying to actually figure out how to write a song… As far as I can see, there are two ways to go from this; either I consider my latop to be a kind of semi-public space, and be mindful that one day it could be my wife, my parents, or my children looking through my hard drive, reading my notes, drafts, doodles etc. Or I consider it a totally throw-on-my-funeral-pyre private thing, and make an effort to put more of my "stuff" into a semi-public space (ie. shared folders, Day One journal, paper notebooks, this blog etc.)
The thing is, this ties in with some pretty fundamental stuff going on around privacy; personally, I think this is a really important issue, and something we need to be thinking carefully about how we protect it (or whats left of it.) For example, it would be pretty straightforward to buy a thing for your wifi that lets you limit how much time your kids can spend on the internet, and give you "insight reports" to let you know what they are up to. Sounds like a useful thing for responsible parents… except, at what point do you turn it off? Because the point where your babies turn into little independant people is probably the point where you should be respecting their privacy and letting them make their own choices/mistakes/lives, but its also going to be the point where you really want to know what is going on intheir lives that they aren't telling you about any more, so I expect the point where I should switch off the thing is exactly the point where I'm not going to want to… On the other hand, there is the opinion that privacy doesn't really matter; that its something that, in the future, will look like a load of quaint and old-fashioned scare stories.
I'm still chewing over this one, to be honest…
- There is one thing that you can guarantee is going to happen in the future and to make plans for, and thats dying. There is an organisation called the Digital Legacy Association, who are all about advising healthcare professionals about how to deal with their online legacy. They had a news story this week about how people stay friends with people on Facebook after they die. Anyway, it led me to think about how to make my Facebook page one less thing for someone to worry about when I die; it turns out that you can set a 'legacy contact' to be the person who is responsible for your profile after you die (it is a bit hidden away in the Security settings – I won't give instructions, because that kind of thing gets moved around on a reasonably regular basis.) If you don't want your FB page to be deleted when you're gone, but you don't want to worry about sharing your password with someone (and what happens if you change it in the future – which you should probably be doing on a regular basis) then you should probably look into this.
- The world is designed for men. Kind of stating the obvious — the world has been mainly "designed" by men for the last few centuries, but this article explains some of the consequences. (Via Azeem Azhar's Exponential View newsletter.)
If you cut off an arm, it can still figure out what it wants to touch and what it wants to avoid, to the extent that it will avoid its own arms, but grab onto a different octopus' arms. ↩
ie. a kind of 'alternate 2016', like in Back to the Future part 2, except for 2016 instead of 1985… I'm sure you get the idea. ↩
Well, I'm sure there would be a period of getting to understand laptops and digital photography and wifi and broadband as well… On the other hand, my 20-years-ago-self knew what the internet was, owned a mobile phone, and would also be good friends with my wife. I do wonder which one he would want to know more about first… ↩