Nothing has changed in the last 20 years

There’s an interesting article in Vanity Fair about the lack of cultural change in the last 20 years compared to the previous century. I wouldn’t say that it has stopped, but it definitely feels like it has slowed down.

It’s hard to be sure though; these are things that are not easily measured. There is no unit of innovation and there is no meter to check its level on. It’s also true to say that all culture copies and steals from the things that have come before. For me, what seems to be happening is that this kind of copying is becoming the primary method of creativity.

It’s also true that the web has brought us closer together as a global community and has caused a great deal of homogenisation.

If we are stuck in a cultural rut, what could bring us out of it?

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Pingu’s “The Thing”

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favourite films and I love how this version matches the pivotal scenes in the original.


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The Haxan Cloak

From their self-titled album.

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Searching for better

When I’m writing code to add a new feature or change an existing one, I try to listen to the little nagging voices I hear about the details. What I want to do is cover all the necessary parts, consider all the cases I can, and make sure that there are good reasons for the choices I’ve made. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to feel complete.

And yet, when I finally show it to somebody, they find things I didn’t cover, and not things I didn’t think of either, things that floated, half-formed in the back of my mind that were never fully expressed. It’s not just a matter of going through a checklist, it’s also about listening and feeling your way through a kind of fog. You see shapes in the distance; it’s up to you to decide if they are important. You can feel your way around their edges, trying to get a sense of them. This is a skill.

The desire to do better is the first step. What comes after is an understanding of what better is. What would “better” look like?

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Being a web developer means always learning, somehow

The first time I worked with other web developers in a team, I already knew a bunch of things that they didn’t. At first I thought this was because I was smart and they were lazy, but later I realised it was because everything I had learned about working on the web I had learned in the previous couple of years. The way they approached problems and the tools they used were the same ones they had used when they first learned the subject, usually around the time they had left university.

After a couple of years, I realised that things were starting to move past me and that I was in danger of being left behind. A difficult thing about being a developer, and this is no doubt true of many jobs in technology, is that the knowledge and techniques of your field move on rapidly and continuously. If you stop learning at any point, your skills start to go out of date and eventually become obsolete.

It’s a big responsibility to keep on top of things, and it’s not always one that employers invest in. There’s a default expectation that any learning you do be done in your spare time. But where does this magical “spare time” come from? That’s a genuine question. I don’t laugh at developers that are stuck in the past any more. I see how difficult it is to keep learning, especially for those with many responsibilities outside of work. You can talk about “passion” all you want, but it’s not just about attitude, or a desire to improve yourself, it’s also about making sacrifices of your time and about taking time away from other things that may be just as important.

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Excluding the 3%

It’s not difficult as a web developer to see the appeal of Facebook integration. It removes a whole bunch of problems around storing passwords and account creation and makes them someone else’s problem. Because, let’s face it, good developers are lazy; a good type of lazy where we trust that someone else has thought about the problem more than we have the time to or that their code has been used so often that a lot of the edge-case problems have already been discovered.

I’m not going to start a rant about how facebook is a terrible, sinister corporation and we shouldn’t trust them with our information. (We shouldn’t, by the way.) But I do think it’s interesting that more and more websites ask you to join up via a Facebook account and that that is their only method of account creation.

Aside from the mechanics of passwords and account details, there are benefits to hooking into a system which already has a well-established network of users. If you can convince someone to post to Facebook about your website (only a click away now) all their friends will see it and their friends friends and so on. I imagine this is why Spotify were so eager to give Facebook the keys to the front door. Again I’m not going to go into why it might be a bad idea to do that. That’s a different conversation.

But here’s the thing: if you only allow sign-up to your service through Facebook, you’re excluding everyone who doesn’t have a Facebook account and doesn’t want to make one. You may think these people are tinfoil hat wearing paranoid crazies, but they are crazies who will never be your customer.

You might have already thought of this and that’s great. You might have decided you want to exclude these people and you understand what that means, but it’s strange how people forget that a small percentage doesn’t equal a small amount. Well maybe it’s not strange. The human brain is hopeless when it comes to dealing with anything numerical that can’t be done by counting on your fingers. I remember once working on a website that had a fatal bug that only manifested in Safari, the client told us just to forget about it because that browser only accounted for 3% of the traffic according to their analytics. But that 3% might have equated to hundreds or thousands of visitors. Visitors that were now in some way excluded from the experience.

I’m not saying that you should chase 100% of your potential audience, you can exclude people if you like, but you need to know who you are excluding and why. To use the browser example above, what if Safari users were more likely to be paying customers? What if that 3% of visitors were 50% of your sales? What if rather than ignoring them you should be optimising for them?

In the example of Facebook integration, I imagine that those without an account are people who are more thoughtful about choices they make on the web, about who they share their information with and about privacy and security in general. So what if those are the very people that your website is trying to reach?

Integration with a third-party service is a good example of where the decision might be great for the developers because of the problems it solves for them but may create a subtle friction for people that you are trying to attract to your site.

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The dangers of gamification

Gamification is a way of making things fun and it’s a way to encourage good behaviour but “good” isn’t baked in. There’s no morality inherent in the use of gamification, it’s just about guiding behaviour. Good or bad or indifferent, the designer wants to provoke you into doing something. This is why I feel wary about it, especially if it’s presented as a way of improving society. It’s not a panacea, in fact where I encounter it most is as a way to encourage people to repeatedly perform some action which is of little benefit to them or society but of some benefit to advertisers and marketers. Check-ins, badges, achievements. All help marketers gather mountains of concrete data about consumer behaviour but don’t benefit the person doing it beyond stimulating an atom-sized psychological high that reinforces the desired behaviour.

The idea that these techniques are derived from games is reductive. They’re derived from a certain type of game. Games that offer unlockable elements, achievements or collectable tokens have become more widespread, or at least those elements have started becoming the very focus of the game more often, especially since these kinds of things have been built in to consoles like the Xbox. But this element is not the game itself. This is a misunderstanding that these elements are core to the experience of games. Games are seen by those that don’t play them as trivial, a waste of time and a way of having fun without making an effort. And on the whole, that does seem fair when you look at the current state of games. But there are experiences of games which do not focus on these shallow types of engagement. There are games where the pleasure comes from achieving something difficult, of testing yourself mentally against the world created by the game designer. And there are games where there is an element of expression, of creativity. (One of the reasons I think Minecraft has been so successful is that it fills a hole for creative sandbox games where the action and ultimately the goals and aims of the game are directed by the player.)

As more and more apps and websites use these types of techniques, I think they will begin to lose their power, or have to become more sophisticated. People will begin to question the time they spend in so many different places trying to achieve the next arbitrary goal. Or maybe they won’t. Millions spend hours on MMOs doing the same thing. But then people can burn out of they have to many points of contact with this kind of activity. For some of us at least, the fast food of check-ins and achievements doesn’t have any appeal or perhaps once did and has now lost its glamour.

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A bit about Steve Jobs

Like many people I was sad to hear about the death of Steve Jobs. And that’s understandable, it’s sad when people die, especially at a relatively young age. But it affected me much more than I had anticipated. It’s so strange and I want to better understand why I feel this way.

A criticism I read on Twitter was that Jobs was a father figure and that his loyal fans were treating his death like the death of a literal father. But I certainly never felt that way about him, in fact, I often criticised Apple’s choices as a company and even now feel uncomfortable with some of the ways they do business. But in that criticism I feel there is something true, that Jobs represented some qualities of a father. What we saw was just the public representation of the man, a fairly controlled aspect of him, and the myths and stories that were attached to him. He came to represent an ideal.

A few people have pointed out to me that Microsoft and Bill Gates have done more for the world, and by some measures have been better at it than Apple. This isn’t a popular opinion, but it’s one I can to some extent agree with. Certainly, any good that Microsoft have done has been overshadowed by their increasingly poor reputation, but where these companies differ fundamentally I think is in their broad approach to technology. Microsoft have done more than anyone to democratise the personal computer by chasing a mass market. Apple on the other hand have tried to develop products that are the best in their class. And whether or not you think that they have succeeded at that, it is that intention that sets them apart.

Jung believed that the conscience was an internalisation of our parents and other figures of authority and in that sense, for people whose job is making things, the idea of Steve Jobs can act as an internal voice demanding that we do our best. I know that might sound like an apotheosis, but again, I’m not talking about the real man, I’m talking about what he stood for in our collective minds.

The podcast network 5 by 5 recorded a tribute to Steve Jobs and I felt especially moved by the contribution from Adam Lisagor, in this he says:

I’ll tell you something about what I’ve learned from you, something that’s now more clear in the last day or so than it’s ever been before, that it’s OK to say no to the things in our lives that add no meaning, that by doing so we set the context within which to be our greatest selves. In the way you began at some point to wake up each day and confront yourself with your mortality, I’ll from here on wake up and ask myself how many things am I doing that add no meaning and whatever that number is is how many things I’ll strip away. Because I want to be my greatest self like you.

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Aim higher, not lower

When Apple first brought out the iPad it was much cheaper than the pundits predicted. That has presented a real challenge to their competitors to produce a comparable product for the same cost or cheaper.

With the HP Touchpad selling well now that it is being sold off from most outlets at a very reduced price, the reaction seems to be that HP would have done well to make a loss on each unit sold which they could then recoup somehow. On apps maybe, or future versions of the hardware.

What’s striking to me is that no one has suggested that anyone try to out-Apple Apple and aim higher. HP had a real opportunity with WebOS to make a product not just comparable to Apple’s but better. What if another company tried to create a tablet double the price of the iPad, with better hardware, better features and a well-polished OS?

What other tablet makers should be learning from Apple is that you don’t have to worry about recouping anything if your product makes a profit in the first place because it is worth buying. The reaction to Apple’s strategy doesn’t have to be to undercut them, it could always inspire you to aim higher.

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What’s your problem?

No one is going to tell you what your biggest problem is. If you stink, no one wants to be the one to tell you to take a shower. If your fly’s open, no one wants to be the one to tell you to zip up. And when you have some strongly held but deeply ignorant belief, no one wants to waste their time and breath convincing you that you’re an idiot.

If you’re going to figure out why things are going wrong, you’re going to have to develop some acute self-awareness.

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