Assume Forms

I wrote a few months ago about how books might evolve as a medium. Since then I have found myself reflecting more on some of the new mediums of communication the internet has afforded us.

Twitter looms large in public discourse, serving as a President’s soapbox, a VC Café philosophique and a place to do jokes, among others. The form itself is real menagerie, from banal one-liners to threaded diatribes. It feels ephemeral and is hard to search or organise; it is unstructured. It is highly contextual, to be experienced in the moment, rather than after-the-fact. A conversation, not a historic record (though surely Tweets will become cited artefacts soon enough). Twitter is perhaps the platform these confused times deserve (one might posit that the blue bird had a causal role, but that is best left for another time).

Email newsletters feel like quite an old format, but I find myself subscribing to more and more these days. Also a real mixed bag of content, from professional organisations’ weekly updates to the idle wonderings of creative minds. I enjoy newsletters because people seem able to be themselves – Yancey Strickler describes newsletters as part of the dark forest of the internet.

“These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.”

There is something private about a newsletter, not just read in your browser but invited into your inbox, placed on your implied to-read list. I find that there are some I archive almost automatically (I should unsubscribe), while there are others I look forward to, just as I look forward to the bi-weekly arrival of Private Eye.

The third form I have been thinking about is by far the most niche, but is also the one which led me to write this post – blogchains. Described and invented at Ribbonfarm:

“A blogchain is longform by other means. Containerized longform if you like. A themed blog-within-a-blog, built as a series of short, ideally fixed-length posts (we’re trying to standardize on 300 words as one container size).”

Distinct from a series, more improvisational, responsive and evolutionary. In writing this blog, I have developed a few larger ideas that I want to build out, but I haven’t felt I have the will (or the audience) to write a big old essay. So maybe I will try blogchains on for size, with this the first one, inspired by James Blake – Assume Forms, on internet mediums.

Going online

The internet has transformed our relationship with the physical world. We are no longer confined to our immediate surroundings, in terms of what we are aware of, what we can do, and who we can interact with.

As drastic as it has been, that transformation is not done. I am interested in the ways in which technology facilitates even greater connection, between our atoms and the internet’s bits. I am sure that we will interact and communicate in ways that feel like science fiction today.

But I am also interested in the internet as a place unto itself, as we become more able to create substantive worlds online (a start). Whether we detach ourselves from our physical forms, and have a meaningful existence in bits or qubits. Whether we will be able to do that. Whether we will want to.

“Going online” sounds like you are there, and not here. It can feel like that, when you are engrossed in your smartphone. We should be thoughtful about the worlds we make, and how we choose to visit them.

Product Lost by @HipCityReg is consistently excellent on this topic in particular. You should subscribe.

Crypto’s sprung?

I’m going to break the fourth wall here for a second, or whatever the equivalent is for writing. I have a working list of “things I might write about”, which I keep in Notion (of course). One thing that has been on that list since March 11th is the topic of Crypto Spring – the idea that we might be recovering from the bear market of 2018 and early 2019, into the next cycle of crypto ebullience. Indeed Fred Wilson decided to call the same thing in May. I can’t remember why I didn’t get round to writing about it in March, but I do remember the reason I was thinking about it, as the ecosystem seemed to worry less about the price of things, and focus more on building things. For me, the excitement around Austin Griffith’s burner wallet was emblematic of the new wave of optimism.

In the last couple of months the market seems to have noticed as well, and this week the price of Bitcoin once again surpassed $10,000 (update: $12,000), so perhaps I am too late already, and Crypto Spring has sprung.

The early days of this new run have some of the hallmarks of the last – news outlets reporting on it, people saying the institutions are coming, eToro adverts in my Gmail. And some things are different – certainly Facebook’s Libra announcement has thrown an interesting spanner into the works. I just hope that this time round a little more has been built when the dust settles. I hope there are more actual users or even customers on these new platforms. And I hope that excitement for building with the technology that I saw in March continues.

Needless to say, yes, it would have been smart to put everything I owned into Bitcoin on March 11th, next question please.

Rose to green?

Market sentiment is tricky, particularly when it turns. You could argue that Tech (capital T, whatever that means) had a good run, but it has certainly stumbled in recent years, as the halo of promise made way for a shadow of uncertainty.

Responses to that Tweet raised some good tipping points, including a trend-leading article from the New Yorker, as well as reminders of some of most high-profile stories (Fowler and Uber, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook around the 2016 Election). More recently there has been controversy at YouTube around their treatment of complaints by Vox’s Carlos Maza, Twitter is accused of providing a platform for white nationalists, while Facebook’s approach to altered videos has been scrutinized. Meanwhile fear of Deepfakes abounds, and Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Big Tech. Everything indicates that the rosy glasses have finally been removed, and may even have been replaced by green tinted spectacles*, revealing an unhealthy pallor of unforeseen consequences.

And yet I write mid-way through a banner year for tech IPOs, as stalwarts continue their strong 2019 and new direct-listing Slack closes its second day of trading to general acclaim.

One could argue that there are larger macro factors at play. But regardless, the financial markets at least are out of step with the popular narrative on Tech, and it will be interesting to see whether that divergence continues. There is a line of thinking that the industry still hasn’t taken ownership of the problems it faces; I wonder if a reckoning in the stock market would be required for Tech executives to take notice.

* I don’t know whether this phrase exists so please indulge me.

An ordinary legacy

I saw a Tweet by Eugene Wei a while back about words that can mean both one thing and almost the opposite thing.

I responded with an old favourite of mine, “quite”:

I was at a session today where I came across another in “legacy”. Legacy has a general meaning, “something left or handed down by a predecessor”, which can obviously go one way or the other. But it also has some slightly more specific definitions.

In legal terms, a legacy is a gift of property, especially personal property, as money, by will; a bequest. Which is generally considered a good thing, both to leave and to receive.

However when you are talking about software or computing (which was the topic today), if something is described as legacy (“a legacy system”), that almost certainly means it is bad, but somehow still in use. That meaning is also invoked in more general settings (“legacy banks” are a particularly popular target in Fintech London-town).

It might be tempting to attribute this to simple neophilia, out with the old, in with the new. But I think it is actually that fundamentally human trait Jeff Bezos describes in a recent shareholder letter, describing human beings as…

“divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.”

We don’t appreciate the work and the sweat and the “of its time” imagination of these legacy things – they have been normalised, they are ordinary. And surely we can improve on ordinary.

It is humbling that the best case scenario for technologists is to create something that is ultimately considered ordinary. But maybe it should also give us a renewed appreciation for things we think of as “legacy” right now.

Conference encounters

It is London Tech Week this week apparently. It was also CogX from Monday to Wednesday, which I think is unaffiliated. It all feels a little like a technology Valentine’s day, fabricated and promoted by conference organisers to extract money from startups and interested people.

I found myself in possession of some free CogX tickets, so went along to a couple of talks on Tuesday and had a bit of a wander about.

Being there with no specific agenda, I wondered what it was that my fellow attendees were hoping to get out of the conference.

As an attendee, a conference is ultimately about encounters, whether those encounters are with ideas, individuals or organisations. These encounters can be formal (i.e. part of the agenda of the conference), or they can be informal (enabled by the structure of the conference, but not part of the agenda). They can be anticipated and planned by attendees in advance (“I really want to go to that talk”, “I want to meet that person”), or they can be serendipitous (“I wonder what’s happening in that tent”, “what brings you to the conference?”). Then the outcome of those encounters can be learning, selling (yourself or your business), or just enjoyment (god forbid).

Reflecting on it, I was at CogX to encounter some new ideas via the formal talks, not really feeling like networking that day (shudders). There was one talk I wanted to attend as I knew all the speakers, but the others I picked as the mood took me, so I suppose I erred on the side of serendipity. And my intended outcome was somewhere between learning and enjoyment. By contrast, I had breakfast with someone who was there largely to meet individuals informally and serendipitously, to recruit people for their business (so a “selling” outcome).

Looking around the event and peering at some name badges, the attendees were a very diverse bunch, and no doubt had a wide range of goals (and therefore requirements for the conference). And even two attendees with the same generic goal might have very different requirements. For example if two people are there to learn about artificial intelligence, and one is a secondary school student while the other is a machine learning engineer, the same keynote presentation will struggle to serve them both.

I am therefore interested in how conference organisers think about maximising the utility for their attendees, as they run the risk of trying to please everyone, and ending up pleasing no one. And similarly how do conferences balance ambitions to grow attendance (and revenue) against the likely diminishing and potentially diluting returns as they expand beyond their initial audience.

What’s in it?

When you buy food from the supermarket, you expect to be able to see what is in it. You don’t necessarily want to to check every item you buy for its percentage of sugar or unsaturated fat (or whatever), but you want to have the option. What if you are allergic to something? What if you are watching your weight? You might want to know what you are putting into your body before you eat it.

We don’t have the same expectation when we are choosing digital products. Sure, there are terms and conditions and privacy policies, but nobody reads them, and in any case do they even contain the salient information? We don’t know if we are exposing ourselves to ad-based monetization, or an infinite scroll attention-vortex, or addictive gamification. We don’t know if our activity is being mined for future recommendations, or how our data is being stored or shared, actually. But we wilfully let these applications into our minds and our lives, even though we don’t know what’s in them.

I’m not saying regulation is required. But I do think technologists should think carefully about what they are putting into their products, outside one-eyed KPIs. And I think as users we should be thoughtful about what we eat. So to speak.