The buzz of an emergent community

I was chatting with a friend who was evangelic in their description of the emergent community on the AltSpace VR (virtual reality) social network They had met great friends, the kind of meaningful interactions that seldom occurs on your Facebook wall now.

But was this about the power of VR? My take was that it is a minor factor at best. VR acted as a filter, it brought similar likeminded early adopters together. In many respects this mirrored other technology filters: the early days of dial up bulletin board services (particularly in the US with free local calls on the Bell network carriers),  AOL and CompuServe chat rooms or the Usenet.

Filipino community gathering under the HSBC building

The power of connecting likeminded people can be a transformative experience in the minds of participants.

If I think back before my time on the internet, my friend’s experience in the emergent community of AltSpace sounded like the people I met at the Hacienda. It sounded like the experience of many of the regulars at acid house club Shoom – which was hosted by Danny Rampling out of a small gym in South London.

These experiences are once lived, often never recaptured experiences rather like being on a school or college sports team. They only exist for a fleeting moment in time.

It was like being an early member on Flickr, or my friend Ian’s experience on CompuServe chat rooms (where he met his future wife).

So what makes these communities special?

  • Likeminded people who are likely to share a certain amount of norms and have common grounds to be there
  • A relatively small number of people. This number becomes inexact. In a good nightclub it would be a certain amount of exclusivity because not everyone knew it was there, rather than a strict door policy. The strict door policy is usually a remedial item done once the norms try and break down
  • Agreement to a set of common behaviours, for many years a common etiquette held sway on networks like Flickr. Facebook doesn’t have this except in tightly managed private groups

So what happens to these communities?

  • A number soldier on, particularly around passion points such as Harry Potter books / films / games
  • A small minority (cough, cough) Facebook for example transcend their community and turn into a utility with pockets of interest hidden in secret
  • Things move on. Think about restaurants or nightclubs that are now sites of investment properties in London or Manchester

About the photo: I took this on an early trip to Hong Kong. Every Sunday the Filipino and Indonesian communities would gather in different parts of the city to see friends, eat, sing, dance and trade items. This picture is of Filipinos,  taken in the private public space under the HSBC building in the Central district. Some years later this was a site for the Occupy Central protesters.

In praise of (D)SLR camera

If you still use a camera nowadays given the usefulness of smartphones, the phrase mirrorless has become de rigueur. Photography like most other things in life have become progressively more digital. Technology is increasingly mediating every aspect of our experiences.

Viewfinder

I still like ‘mirrored’ or single lens reflex cameras. Digital single lens reflex cameras free the photographer from the tyranny of film; but still allows the photographer to frame up a shot in advance before using the battery life of the camera.

Looking through the view finder of an SLR gives you a temporary isolation from peripheral visuals allowing you to focus mentally as well as physically on the subject in question.  It allows you to slow down and take your time in the moment.

Of course, as with most technology experiences, the human experience is viewed in a very one dimension manner. An object to be overcome in the least minimum viable way possible.

A few thoughts on innovation

I started thinking about a post on innovation, after an agency meeting about a possible project. My friend Nigel Scott has been researching the venture capital industry. His ideas fired some of the thoughts in this post.

It caused me to reflect again on innovation and the way we think about it.

Innovation rewards hard work?

We are often told that innovators work really hard and strive to achieve their goals. In Where Wizards Stay Up Late – there is a description of Silicon Valley culture. Late nights by engineers and takeout food was considered one of the factors that drove the early Internet. Engineers were building new technologies as they went at break-neck speeds.

The problem is that for many jobs there is no 9-to-5 now. When I worked in agencies 12+ hour days were typical depending on the client load. Yet we weren’t pulling Cannes Lions award-winning work out of our butts.

In China, many companies now work to ‘996‘. That is 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week as core hours. This is basic a minimum requirement for engineers. Somewhere like Huawei, try to build a ‘wolf’ mentality. They work their staff much harder and they’re expected to retire at 45 – presumably physically and mentally burned out.

Working hard is a hygiene factor, technology has made it that way. Your typical Uber driver is gamed by the driver app to put in excess of 12-hours/day. Both knowledge and unskilled workers would have a similar level of time poverty.

Innovation is like buses

For long-suffering public transport users in the UK many services are compared to buses. Due to road traffic and scheduling, there would often be an overly long time for a bus to arrive. When it eventually did, there would be another two following very closely behind.

You can see a similar thing with innovation.

Whilst we’re used to thinking of John Logie Baird as the inventor of television – and Baird worked very hard on television. The reality is that television was based on a series of inventions from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

There are at least 20 different inventors who had some claim to coming up with the light bulb. But Edison did manage to create the first commercially successful bulb. British school children are taught about Joseph Swan’s carbon filament bulb. This was let down by the vacuum process in manufacturing and poor quality electricity supplies so the bulbs didn’t last very long. Swan had solved his bulb’s problem and changed the filament.

It was only at this point that Edison started his research into electric light bulbs.

More recently, I was talking to an agency about a piece of work that didn’t come off in the end. The discussion turned to a drug that was very recently launched. The problem was that although they were first to market, they weren’t the only inventors. A large rival had launched drug approvals for their product in markets were original firm hadn’t focused on for its initial approvals. Another two companies were immediately behind them and likely to drop their prices (and profit margins) to make up for later market entry.

If one thinks about the modern computer with its graphical user interface. This was created by layers and layers of innovation. Doug Engelbart, whilst working at SRI International demonstrated the following to an audience of government officials in 1968

  • GUI interface
  • Mouse pointing device
  • Text manipulation
  • Collaborative editing
  • Video conferencing (a la Skype)

The Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) refined Engelbart’s concepts further with a complete modern office by 1973. Steve Jobs and his team got into see it, which drove work on the Lisa and then the Macintosh. Microsoft got in and eventually came up with Windows. Microsoft also learned from building software applications for the Macintosh.

Digital Research invented their own GUI layer called GEM. GEM was demoed at Comdex in 1984; right about the time Apple launched the Macintosh. Commodore launched the Amiga in 1985 and also added multi-tasking – the ability to run two or more apps at the same time.

These are just a few examples for the sake of brevity. But the inventor slaving away in isolation to come up with something, uniquely innovative is not rooted in evidence. Yet intellectual property law gives lie to this myth. I don’t want to belittle the work done, but it is as if there is a certain amount of predestination to invention based on prior innovations.

Innovation happens

This predestination of technological progress is something that Kevin Kelly labeled the Technium. In his book What Technology Wants he posited that technological progress can be slowed, but nothing short of an apocalypse can stop it completely.  Here’s what Kevin Kelly said in an interview with Edge.org when supporting the launch of What Technology Wants:

The technium is a superorganism of technology. It has its own force that it exerts. That force is part cultural (influenced by and influencing of humans), but it’s also partly non-human, partly indigenous to the physics of technology itself.

We understand the innovation process?

Nigel Scott has done some research on the historic records of venture capital companies. And a key finding was the Silicon Valley venture capital firms do a ‘random walk’ on Sandhill Road. It implies that much of the advice dispensed is survivor bias or post-rationalisation.

You hear the phrase ‘pivot’ which means changing the model to profitablity. Old time VCs used to talk about investing people or teams, which explains why research by Boston Consulting Group found that women get less funding than male entrepreneurs.

Venture capitalists have the monetary incentive and the budgets to develop a thorough understanding of innovation, yet they don’t seem to apply it successfully. Which begs the question – how much do we really understand about innovation?

Innovation: did software really eat the world?

Back in 2011, Marc Andreesen wrote an op-ed (opinion piece) in the Wall Street Journal ‘Why Software Is Eating The World‘.

Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.

Over two billion people now use the broadband Internet, up from perhaps 50 million a decade ago, when I was at Netscape, the company I co-founded. In the next 10 years, I expect at least five billion people worldwide to own smartphones, giving every individual with such a phone instant access to the full power of the Internet, every moment of every day.

On the back end, software programming tools and Internet-based services make it easy to launch new global software-powered start-ups in many industries — without the need to invest in new infrastructure and train new employees. In 2000, when my partner Ben Horowitz was CEO of the first cloud computing company, Loudcloud, the cost of a customer running a basic Internet application was approximately $150,000 a month. Running that same application today in Amazon’s cloud costs about $1,500 a month.

As one can see Andreesen’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Software is only the front end of a technology stack that is transforming the world. That transformation started before the web, before broadband infrastructure; with the rise of integrated circuits. Machine learning is doing some impressive things, but they are part of a continuum. Machine learning in data mining is building on work done in academia in the 1980s. It is replicating work done in the 1990s on decision support systems and business intelligence software.

Even, back in the early 1990s, commercial chemical labs were using software to guide product development. Rather than having to test every combination religiously; you started inputting formulations and results. The software would then extrapulate possible combinations and narrow down on an ideal formulation much quicker.

Its_a_Sony

As for machine learning in consumer products; it mirrors the late 1980s. Fuzzy logic came out of a 1965 research paper by Lofti A Zadeh at the University of California, Berkeley.

Japanese manufacturers built lifts that optimised for traffic flows of people. Microwaves that set its own timer for defrosting an item. Washing machines customised spin cycles based on the drum load. Televisions adjusted their brightness based on the ambient conditions of the room. (When similar technology was rolled out on early Intel MacBook Pro screens and keyboard lights it was billed as game changing). It removed a lot of blur from camcorder videos. All applications that are not a million miles away from smart homes and consumer technology today. They improved energy efficiency, with precise lighting, heating or cooling.

A western analysis of Japanese technology companies; usually cites their ‘defeat’ by Silicon Valley as an apparent lack of software skills. I’d argue that this lacks an understanding of Japanese software capabilities. From gaming to rock solid RTOS (real time operating systems); Japanese products met Andreesen’s software definition. The Japanese didn’t manage to sell enterprise software in the same way as Silicon Valley. It is something to bear in mind given the current glut of machine learning-orientated businesses in Silicon Valley. Does it mean that we won’t have the type of general AI applications that we’ve been promised in the future? No far from it, though a technological idea often takes several tries before it breaks through.

What becomes apparent is that software making an impact is merely the last stage of previous innovations. The problem with Andreesen’s model is that it portends what Judy Estrin described as innovation entropy.

Andreesen’s model couldn’t exist without:

  • Packet-switched networks – 1960 (RAND)
  • Unix-type operating systems – mid 1960s (MIT, AT&T Bell Labs, General Electric)
  • C programming language – 1972 (Unix development team)
  • Optical fibre networks – 1965 (Telefunken)
  • Internet router – 1966 (UK National Physical Laboratory)
  • ADSL 1988 (Bellcore)
  • DOCSIS 1997 (CableLabs)

So the core technologies that Andreesen’s software relied upon to eat the world was between 15 and 50 years old. It also relied on a massive overinvestment in optical fiber.  The dark fiber was done as part of a telecoms boom that occurred around the same time as the dot com boom. Software isn’t eating the world, its just the cherry on top of innovation that’s gone before. More importantly, software seems to be an end point and  doesn’t seem to extend the base of innovation further.

A second problem is that semiconductors phenomenal progress in integrated circuits is slowing down. Part of the problem is that more money is being dumped into disrupting the supply and demand for service industries, rather than funding start-ups who will power the next wave of underlying innovation that future software will rely on.

The Internet of Stupid Things

A more charitable phrase for what many consumers call the Internet of Shit. Yes lots of products can be internet enabled, but should they be? There is a mix of challenges:

  • Products that are internet enabled but shouldn’t be – the Happy Fork or the Griffin Smart Toaster being classic examples. I found the Griffin Smart Toaster particularly disappointing as the company’s products such as the PowerMate are generally really good
  • Products that would be benefit from tech, but shouldn’t rely on the the cloud. I’d argue that Nest would fit in this category where cloud outages could have serious impacts on the consumer

It is interesting to see that Li & Fung (who are famous for global supply chain management provided to western brands and retailers) are involved in this. The qualitative design research they did on skiing wearables for a client – which begs the question of what value Li & Fung’s client brings to the table.

What if Stories are Brain Code?

The boy on the wall

From Hollywood to the marketing industry we’re told that stories resonate with us. They are the reason why films, books, video games and TV dramas entertain. According to storytelling theorists like Joseph Campbell; we find fulfilment understanding what is happening. Campbell et al think that our enjoyment of stories analogous to the enjoyment of solving puzzles. What if stories can be more than puzzles for our enjoyment?

Our understanding of storytelling

Our understanding of storytelling is of a more tenuous nature than Newtonian physics or organic chemistry. You could argue that Joseph Campbell was a ‘victim’ of his discipline. He worked in the fields of comparative mythology and religion. Campbell was looking for universal patterns in stories. He assumed that rest of us are as well. Though this ‘understanding’ would be occcuring at a ‘low level’ in computing terms. Only select (mostly educated) people would think of it at a higher conscious rational level.

Like many academics in the early and mid-20th century his work drew inspiration from eastern religions. In Campbell’s case, like Nietzsche; he drew from Hindu thought. Campbell’s interest in Indian philosophy was due to a meeting. In 1924, Campbell encountered the messiah elect of the Theosophical Society. He was on a cruise liner from Europe to the US. Campbell was also profoundly affected by Nietzsche’s work.

  • Did Nietzsche open Campbell to Indian philosophy or was it the other way around?
  • Was it just the nature of a naturally enquiring mind?
  • Were there factors that made him more open to it?

Campbell based his theories on myth and its connection to the human psyche in part on Sigmund Freud. Campbell’s myth concepts drew on Jung’s dream interpretation methods. Jung’s insights into archetypes drew from The Tibetan Book of The Dead. Campbell quotes Jung on The Tibetan Book of The Dead in The Mythical Image:

“belongs to that class of writings which not only are of interest to specialists in Mahayana Buddhism, but also, because of their deep humanity and still deeper insight into the secrets of the human psyche, make an especial appeal to the layman seeking to broaden his knowledge of life… For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.”

(Bardo Thodol is another name for The Tibetan Book of The Dead). A lot of this hinges on the value of dreams. Heres what Dream interpretation and false beliefs has to say. It was published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice in 1999:

“Dream interpretation is a common practice in psychotherapy. In the research presented in this article, each participant saw a clinician who interpreted a recent dream report to be a sign that the participant had had a mildly traumatic experience before age 3 years, such as being lost for an extended time or feeling abandoned by his or her parents. This dream intervention caused a majority of participants to become more confident that they had had such an experience, even though they had previously denied it. These findings have implications for the use of dream material in clinical settings. In particular, the findings point to the possibility that dream interpretation may have unexpected side effects if it leads to beliefs about the past that may, in fact, be false.”

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate Campbell’s theory in terms of storytelling. But it seems to cast doubt on the application of Jungian dream interpretation for clinical use. The best advice that I can give in this matter is caveat lectorem.

From Academia to Hollywood: formulaic stories

 

Joseph Campbell was a prolific author.  He published material that went into over 40 books. Part of this was due to the efforts of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which collected his papers and published a number of work after his death. These included: coverage of his academic work, travel diaries and even his personal philosophy. It was picked up on by the American public, which has been endless quoted and misinterpreted due to the phrase ‘follow your bliss’.

The key work of Campbell was his 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. it was his first solo work and got him recognition outside academic circles. The central them is that ‘myths’ from around the world all share a common structure. This is what Campbell called a ‘monomyth’. The monomyth or hero’s journey was mapped out visually on Wikipedia

heroes journey

Campbell went on to propose the purpose of these myths which he grouped into four functions. Wikipedia described it thus:

The Metaphysical Function – Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being The Cosmological Function – Explaining the shape of the universe The Sociological Function – Validate and support the existing social order The Pedagogical Function – Guide the individual through the stages of life

Campbell’s work went on to influence luminaries of the 1960s counterculture movement including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jim Morrison. It’s obvious influence in film kicked in around the same time. Stanley Kubrick introduced it Arthur C. Clarke. This happened during their collaboration to turn Clarke’s short story The Sentinel into 2001 A Space Odyssey screen play and book. George Lucas’ role in the popularisation of Campbell’s work was probably the biggest single effect. Hollywood at the time was in a state of dramatic change. This change mirrored the kind of change that the punk ethic and independent labels wrought on the music industry a decade later. Artistic and cultural change, further globalisation of artistic culture, new motion film camera technology and the rise of television created a set of factors that helped facilitate the rise of New Hollywood. The initial success of these director-driven films allowed power shifted from the producers to the studios for a time.

  • Directors drew on foreign influences: new wave cinema, Japanese cinema
  • The MPAA ratings system allowed more adult subjects to be discussed that would have otherwise been taboo
  • The Panavision Panaflex camera provided a more compact way to shoot on 35mm film. This facilitated greater use of location shooting, providing a more naturalistic style and also facilitated Lucas’ special effects in Star Wars

Whilst Lucas was part of this movement; both THX 1138 and American Graffiti, fit within the New Hollywood genre. But like Stephen Spielberg, Lucas unwittingly created the next stage in movie development that helped producers take back their seat of power. Star Wars became a blockbuster. Though the ingredients were very different to the corporate creations of Marvel Studios or the Transformers franchise.

Its homage to the chambara films of Akira Kurosawa, pre-war Flash Gordon episodes and vintage westerns smacked of New Hollywood. It’s blockbuster status meant that the industry paid attention to valuable lessons learned. George Lucas became the first film maker to publicly cite The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other Campbell works as influences. Lucas repaid the creative debt that he owed to The Hero With A Thousand Faces by allowing Bill Moyes to shoot a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell  at Skywalker Ranch.

Campbell and storytelling theory then became baked into Hollywood’s DNA. Over time it came into marketing, firstly through the creative side of the advertising industry. Television advertising at the time borrowed creative direction and stories from movie expertise. Directors like Tony Kaye and Ridley Scott moved between advertising and film projects. Eventually storytelling moved through other parts of the marketing industry including public relations. Hollywood have taken a number of turns at further refining Campbell’s monomyth model.

One has to note that their goals are different from Campbell’s research. Hollywood largely seeks to entertain (for profit) and getting the viewer to suspend disbelief for the duration fo the movie or TV series rather than  achieving one of Campbell four functions.

Different cuts on the hero's journey

Volger is commonly cited by modern script writers. He refines and expands the thinking around the monomyth. Volger puts more emphasis than Campbell on the hero’s change in emotional state and internal journey.  His emphasis on emotion is important when one is creating content to land brand messages and would be of interest to the advertising community. The biggest area of disagreement that many have with Volger’s approach is that his structure implies a steady change in emotional state and internal journey of the hero. A paradigm shift in state would possibly create greater dramatic tension for the viewer.

From monomyth to winning algorithm.

Technology has moved from the creative process of film making an into the commercial side of the process. The movie industry is supporting machine learning based startups like ScriptBook. Belgium-based ScriptBook analyses screen plays to produce forecasts before a film is put into production. ScriptBook provides a box office earnings forecast, likely MPAA rating and recommended market demographics. Of course, many classic films had screen plays that were altered or completely rewritten several times. The tortured overworked scriptwriters working miracles in really short times and ‘script doctors’ called into ‘fix’ a bad situation. Both are part of the Hollywood system and its own mythology. In many respects ScriptBook mirrors the marketing industry’s move towards the adoption of predictive analytics for consumer behavioural change.

How stories work for the brain.

Behavioural scientist Nick Chater has roughly two decades of published academic work behind him based on research in various aspects of cognitive science. He has a depth and credibility to his work that we currently don’t have  on people and storytelling.

In his book The Mind is Flat, Chater posits that the mind doesn’t have conscious and unconscious aspects. Emotions aren’t hard wired, instead thoughts and feeling are created on the fly. This effectively invalidates Freudian psychology principles. Our inner voice is effectively our brain telling storytelling to itself.  Our identities are constructed and given shape on the fly by the stories that we tell to ourselves as we go along. The unconscious mind would appear to be a conceit about our depth.

This brings to mind the final episode in season two of Westworld, where the systems who had been trying to replicate humans realised their challenges. They had assumed humans were complex in nature, where as the show claims that they can be replicated in 10,247 lines of code, with definite limits on their potential. Of course 10,247 lines of code, whilst less than Photoshop could have a world of fractal complexity.

Essentially there is no ‘deeper’ language than storytelling. Stories aren’t only about rules and plot consistency, but about creative leaps.

This means from a marketing perspective whilst if we get stories right, they can be more powerful than we had previously imagined. In computing terms we would be writing direct the processor or ‘hitting the metal’ as games programmers would call it. It also needs to take into account that getting great stories is really hard.

It also casts more questions about whether we have learned the right lessons to date about storytelling from the likes of Joseph Campbell?

More information

Joseph Campbell – The Mythical Image
The Tibetan Book of The Dead
Mazzoni, G. A. L., Lombardo, P., Malvagia, S., & Loftus, E. F. (1999). Dream interpretation and false beliefs. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(1), 45-50.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Hero’s Journey – Wikipedia
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
The Writer’ Journey by Christopher Volger
Artificial Intelligence Might Affect How Studios Greenlight Movies | Cinemablend
Artificial Intelligence Could One Day Determine Which Films Get Made | Variety
ScriptBook “Hard science, better box office” and Crunchbase profile
This Man Says the Mind Has No Depths | Nautilus
The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind by Nick Chater
‘Westworld’ Season Finale Recap: Code Unknown | Rolling Stone Online