Design Internet of Things Talks Technology

The Shape of Things

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016, lightly edited to remove many terrible jokes. For more information about Webstock, New Zealand, the artwork in this piece and more more, skip to the bottom of the page to the unnecessarily long transcript. It’s also a repost of an article I posted to Medium. See the talk in its original context.

What I’m going to be doing today:

Today I’m going to be talking about the thinking we’ve been doing at Thington about the right and wrong ways to interact with a world of connected objects, and some of the problems we’ve been trying to solve.

In particular I want to talk about the relationship we’re starting to build between physical network-connected objects and some kind of software or service layer that sits alongside them, normally interacted with via a mobile phone.

And I’m going to talk a bit about how there’s a push in the design community to find a different model, dissolving the top layer here into the object itself through (a) tangible, physical computing, or through (b) metaphors of enchantment or magic:

I’m going to try and argue that both of these models are kind of wrong! And I’m going to be chatting about a few ways that I think we could and should be a bit nicer to the software or service layer (with a nice long digression about tangible computing on the way).

This is, by all accounts, a pretty deep, weird and nerdy talk, through which I hope to expose to you some of the insane depths of computer history and the weird arguments designers have.

But first a little history…

A brief history of computing in the Twentieth Century:

We’re going to start with Thomas Watson — the gentleman founder of IBM — and a statement that he is alleged to have made in 1943 that sounds crazy and entertaining to modern ears. That statement is:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

There’s actually very little evidence he made this statement at all, but at the time it wasn’t a particularly unusual statement to make. For example, Charles Darwin’s grandson — who was slightly unfortunately also called Charles Darwin — said in 1946 of the UK:

“It is very possible that … one machine would suffice to solve all the problems … demanded of it from the whole country”

And then there’s this chap, early computer pioneer and telepathic supervillain Howard Aiken, who said:

People genuinely didn’t think there were going to be many computers in the world! Even after twenty years — maybe because of twenty years — in the tech industry I find this a super weird thought. I find this a really hard idea to get my head around.

So how did this match up with the actual reality? This following picture is me in the late seventies in my favorite Disney Winnie the Pooh t-shirt, in Norwich in the UK, not looking very cool. This is about thirty-five years after Thomas Watson from IBM’s statement, coincidentally roughly halfway between that statement and today:

In terms of computing, where are we? From the four or five computers that Thomas Watson thought we’d have, we’re already up to the massive 50,000 units of computers sold each year. That’s quite a shift!

Skipping forward another fifteen years or so, here I am again:

Here I’ve finished primary and secondary school, and I’ve gone to University and I’m starting grad school and I’ve popped over to the US to have my photo taken on top of the Empire State Building with my tongue out. At this point in the world there are in active use something like 150 million computers.

Here are pictures of me in the early 2000s (one billion computers have ever been sold) and the mid-2000s (two billion computers have ever been sold).

And then of course this happened:

I think we all forget how quickly things can change, but I think it’s fair to say that the era of the modern smart-phone starts with the iPhone, and it’s really important to remember that only launched a little under nine years ago. This by the way, is the very first advert for the iPhone which essentially replaced single use telephones with general purpose computers connected to the phone network.

Three years after the iPhone launched — so about six years ago now — in addition to all of the desktop and laptop computers we were buying, we were also buying 150 million smart phones a year.

Five years later — 2016 — and it’s projected that 1.6 billion smartphones will be sold. In one single year, one smart phone will be bought for every five people on the planet.

But what happens next? A world of connected objects.

Now the reason I’ve taken you through this little adventure is to just remind you that within a human lifetime, we’ve gone from essentially zero computers sold per year to billions. It’s been a period of an extraordinary increase in the availability of computation — with processors shrinking and becoming more powerful every day. And not only has it been growing at an extraordinary rate, that rate itself is accelerating. The last decade has seen a massive expanse in available computation and it shows no sign of slowing down. We can expect a world of hundreds of billions — trillions — of computers distributed around the world around us within a few years — embedded absolutely everywhere they can make even the slightest incremental improvement.

I’m talking of course about the Internet of Things, and this is where I make my first grandiose assertion of the day:

It’s a time of tremendous change. After years of design experiments and academic discussion, the cost and availability of components and the ready availability of smart phone interfaces means that the Internet of Things is finally rapidly approaching.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that within a decade almost all new electrical appliances and devices that we buy for the home will have some kind of network component — to say nothing of our offices or public spaces. Quite seriously, the world of tomorrow is dripping in objects that belch out information or can take commands, or both…

But don’t take my word for it. This is Samsung’s CEO at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he made the Internet of Things their major focus:

“By 2017, all Samsung televisions will be IoT devices, and in five years, all Samsung hardware will be IoT devices”

By the way, CES is an amazing event too. After years of it being something that internet people didn’t really attend, it feels like that’s finally changing as software and computation starts moving into devices.

When I went last year, there were smart dishwashers, heaters, smart air conditioning units and humidifiers, smart lighting, smart garage door openers, things to open curtains, check if your house was on fire, smart ovens and kitchen scales, smart vacuum cleaners and smart security systems. If it could take a battery or plug into the mains there was a smart version of it… And they were being made by companies like Samsung, Polaroid, Canon, Panasonic, Quirky, Sony, Belkin, Parrot, Honeywell and many others.

But how do people access the power of these devices?

Honestly, however good the hardware was at CES and however much of it there was, often the the benefits that thetechnology seemed to bring people just did not seem to be as good as I might have hoped. The power of the internet was just not present in these devices — the networked parts of the product were effectively little more than app-based remote controls.

To me, it was still clear that they were going to be able to offer tremendous power to us all to control and understand the world around us, but there was little sense of how a normal person might harness or grab that power in comprehensible ways.

Now some of you might be even more suspicious and say that there’s little or no power to be discovered in a world of connected devices. I think that’s wrong, but I also think it’s an understandable statement. Some of these devices have been crazy and lurid and wasteful in their use of technology and bring no obvious benefits to their users.

But today, I’m going to focus on those devices that (when enhanced with the internet) get better. This statement from my friend Matt Rolandson from Ammunition Group in San Francisco sums up this category for me:

“You should use the network to amplify a tool’s core purpose, not to be another web browser or Twitter client”

I really think this is one of the most bluntly useful and apparently obvious things that anyone has said about the Internet of Things as it manifests in devices and appliances. The Internet can and should be used to amplify a devices core purpose and if it does so, it makes that device better and more useful.

But surely there are better ways for us to amplify the purpose of things than just giving them a remote control?

There now follows a brief guide to Tangible Computing — and thanks to Doctor Who and Rick & Morty for the examples I’ve used here.

Merging the physical and the digital

Okay — so this is the pattern that I mentioned earlier — essentially there’s an object — here an oven — and it comes with an app that runs on a mobile phone. The app is essentially a remote control for the main object, one that potentially has a few rule making components with it that make it a little more interesting and useful.

This is a model that actually enhances the object it’s attached to — it makes it easier to control or check up upon from a distance, but it seems a bit simplistic and on the nose. Can this really be the extent of the future we’re looking for? And is the reason it feels a bit dull an interaction problem?

One direction that designers have traditionally been very keen to explore is dissolving those two parts together — merging the service layer and physical objects to make something seamless and more powerful, that a user might interact with in both the ‘data’ environment and the ‘physical’ environment at the same time. Essentially the goal here is to break down the distinction between the two parts of the ‘thing’ (actual vs virtual) to make something new and hybridised.

There are so many people making these arguments in the (perhaps more cerebral) parts of the design community that it sometimes seems inevitable that this is the direction that we should be moving in. Let me give you some examples:

This is a quote from Josh Clark (from Connected // Disconnected), who has been talking around IoT on the design side for a while now and is a very sharp guy:

“The potential of the internet of things is to improve on what mobile does so well. Instead of availability at the point of inspiration, IoT lets us shift to interaction with the point of inspiration. Add sensors and smarts to an object or place, and you no longer have to pull out your phone for a digital interaction.”

And this is a quote from Matt Webb in the UK from a piece called ‘Waving, Not Designing’ that he wrote a few years back:

Why use just your fingers to select what’s on a display when you can use your whole body? It’s often easier, and makes more sense. Like, when you use a hammer, you don’t key into system to say “hit at point X with force F” and then stand back and let it happen, you just pick up the hammer and hit with it, using your body to judge strength and your eyes to judge position.

I could genuinely list a hundred other people making this argument. And they’re some of my favourite people in the design community too — people who are looking around, reaching for something truly new and interesting and more intuitive.

This is literally a screenshot from an argument I had on Twitter with a super sharp friend of mine, who is clearly pining for something a bit beyond the model of “phone + thing”.

Designers are looking for a new natural vocabulary for the next generation of devices, and they’re looking towards embodied interactions and tangible computing.

A brief guide to Tangible Computing

Much of this thinking is inspired by the ground-breaking work of people like Paul Dourish, David Rose, Durrell Bishop, Natalie Jeremijenko and Hiroshii Ishii.

Now I have to apologise here because for brevity I’m going to have to wildly over-simplify their positions (you should go and read and research their work online at least — it’s great stuff) but essentially they want to blur and even dissolve the distinction between the digital and the physical. They think rather than have a differentiated service layer, the magical intelligence should merge with the physical object. And that, in the doing of this, they believe simpler, clearer, more powerful, magical objects emerge.

Their argument is fundamentally that the world of screens and icons is too abstracted and separate from the world around us and the ways in which human beings understand that world.

Let me give you an example — David Rose in his book “Enchanted Objects” talks about four visions of the future. The most awful one he describes is called, “Terminal World”.

“It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives…”

Now unsurprisingly, David doesn’t want this world to happen (or for phones to eat his children) so he presents an alternative view that he called “Enchanted Objects”. He describes it as ‘technology that atomizes, combining with the objects that make up the very fabric of daily living’ and the examples he provides are really lovely.

Glowcaps helps people remember to take their pills

One particular example he worked on himself is the Glowcaps system, which beeps and flashes with increasing urgency if you forget to take your pills on any given day. And he talks about many others, including Nest Thermostats that predict your temperature needs, umbrellas with lights upon them that signal up when it’s going to rain that day and many more.

These are genuinely useful and interesting things and there genuinely are more of them every day coming into the world. The Glowcaps alone have a huge impact on people whose drug regimens have to be strictly adhered to.

The metaphor here, as I’ve said, is ‘enchantment’ — magical interactions — bringing the intelligence into the object itself as you would with an ancient sword, rather than believing in the presence of a separate, service layer.

Diamond Pickaxe + Enchanted Book = Enchanted Pickaxe

Leaping back in time quite a long way for a moment for illustrative purposes, here are two classic examples from the early nineties of the blurring of the physical and the digital — bringing the virtual representation and the real object so close that they become one definite thing.

On the left we have Durrell Bishop’s answering machine. This pumps out a little marble when you have a message, and you place the marble on a sensor tray to play it back. Natalie Jeremijenko’s dangling string simply indicates the amount of network traffic in a space by twitching a string in a room, giving people an ambient awareness of activity.

I bring these up because they are classics of the field — almost foundations of the field — of tangible computing and were first to articulate some of these goals that we’ve talked about so far..

Paul Dourish, in fact, went a step further in his seminal book ‘Where the Action is’ around 2001, suggesting not just that things would be better if the physical and the digital were closer together but that such a path was effectively inevitable and natural.

He framing our interactions with technology as a series of approaches that build one upon the other, each employing a skillset that more closely reflects how human beings understand and instinctively interact with the world.

Paul Dourish’s “The Stages of Human Experience of Interaction with Computers”

And it certainly does seem like there continues to be a lot of ways in which more tangible interactions with enchanted objects could provide a lot of power in the world. It’s clear we’ll see a lot more of this kind of approach — the focusing on the invisibility of the technology, dissolving in the use of the object. It promises a certain seamlessness of interaction.

Some problems with merging the virtual and the actual

But is it the ultimate answer to how we interact with a world of connected objects? There’s a desire by people using these guys as inspiration to try and make every object self-explanatory, self-evident, complete and seamless and separate from other things. And that seems like a flawed enterprise to me and it seems to miss where quite a lot of the power of connected objects might be… That is, in the connections.

In the first place, I think there’s a bit of a category mistake going on here. For Hiroshi Ishii and Paul Dourish, for example, the work they’re doing is more concerned with using physical interfaces to manipulate data, rather than bringing computation into devices. Their focus seems generally in making the manipulation of digital objects more intuitive by bringing it into the physical, a space that we have dedicated millions of years of evolution to understanding intuitively.

The internet of things, however, is much more about enhancing the physical with the digital, making the objects make more sense at a distance, or drawing out information from them and bringing it into a virtual space where we can do stuff with it.

In some ways, you might argue that the fact that the two merge the physical and the digital is a coincidence — and that in all the ways that count, they are actually opposites of one another.

I’d also add that one of the thing I think contemporary designers miss is that these thinkers were very focused on the environment surrounding the object and the abstract information about who owns it, who can use it, what information the object needs in order to be able to do its job most effectively.

Dourish is very focused on the environment around the things, Rose very focused in the services around the objects. I think it’s a mistake to think that their focus on better objects means less focus on better service layers.

Another example that complicates this tangible vision — in my home, I have various smart lights connected to the Internet but it doesn’t really make sense to me to think of them individually — they’re part of a larger system which is ‘My environment’. What is it specifically that I connect with or touch or interact with to make them act in the world? The objects are definitely acting independently, but it feels like there’s something that connects them.

Again, it feels like something that isn’t situated in the object, it feels like there’s something between them. My intuition is that I’m communicating with or manipulating something beyond the level of an individual object, and it feels like that’s the intuition that in this context we should build interfaces around. Perhaps then the power simply doesn’t come from dragging the network down into the physical thing, but with embracing the network and the object as complementary but separate parts of the same system…

In fact it’s this problem of what’s most intuitive that gives me most pause for tangible computing generally. The assumption from many of these thinkers is that making an interface that’s physical makes it inherently more intuitive.

But I don’t buy that physical affordances alone will make it immediately obvious what a smart connected object is for. Sure, you pick up a hammer and you immediately want to hit something (or maybe that’s just me) — but is that true of a smart hammer?

That seems to me to also be dubious — for every good product that makes more sense when embodied or made tangible, it seems another is likely to pick up some strange magical interaction metaphors that are less intuitive, or even counter intuitive. It’s quite possible that in taking something that is ‘natively’ digital or abstracted and merging it with something else with physical affordances, we create a thing at war with itself. Not more intuitive at all, but just much more confusing.

Are we making things that are effortless, or are we simply creating a whole new vocabulary of interactions that people have to get their heads and hands around?

Our cousins in computer engineering talk about General Purpose Computing — whereas as designers we’re often tempted by the quest to find the ultimately specific interface for the thing in front of us. But each slightly different interface creates an extra cognitive load that when multiplied across every object in the world may be wildly less intuitive than a General Purpose Interface on a phone, or smart watch or computer whose abstracted rules we learn once and can then apply everywhere.

In this quick diagram I knocked up, the green stuff is the thing that is immediately intuitive and doesn’t require learning. The red stuff are the bits that you have to learn to use. My argument here is perhaps a slightly harder to learn ‘General Purpose’ UI might have less cognitive load than a whole bunch of nearly intuitive devices where there isn’t any transferable knowledge.

So if the solution isn’t merging the physical and the digital, what is it?

Maybe we could do more with the service layer instead?

Towards a stronger service layer?

Personally I think the solution of how the physical and the digital should interact is not to bring them closer, but instead try make the relationship between the two clearer and then push the power of the service layer far beyond where it is at the moment. And I think when you actually look at the problems that confront people when they use IOT devices, you end up essentially defining the properties of what that service layer should be.

In a moment I’m going to tell you a bit about what I think that picture looks like, but first — if you’re a designer who is in any way uncomfortable with this idea of the point of interaction and the device being separated from one another — I have a quick example for you from history which might help you relax.

This is the evolution of the light switch. Lighting started with controls directly next to the kerosene, oil or electricity light and gradually moved away from the object itself to the places they made most convenient sense — by the door that you walk in through.

You shouldn’t doubt it took them a while to get there — I love the one with the cord in the middle that uses a sort of pulley system to put the interaction where it makes most sense — but in the end we all decided that we understood that the right place for a light control is just where you want to turn on the light. The light is the thing. The service layer is the switch. And the service layer sits wherever it makes most sense for the person, with the relationship between the two clear and simple.

Here’s a more up-to-date example. Zipcar has cars parked in garages and parking structures across the World. And you can book them online or from the app and open the doors and drive off with them at any time with a simple RFID card.

But the hardware here is trivial — it’s just an RFID reader and a couple of switches, allowing the engine to start and the doors to unlock.

It’s in the service layer that the value of Zipcar truly lies — you probably book the car from home, so you’ll probably book it via your phone. And then you’ll use all those brilliant features of the internet that cars don’t naturally have — an understanding of identity, payment and a sense of location. It’s from that interplay a beautiful and powerful service is born that makes thousands of cars in thousands of locations yours to spin up as a software engineer might spin up an EC2 instance.

So what is the ideal service layer for the Internet of Things?

Here are the six things that I currently think are the core features of an enhanced service layer for general smart things.

Number one is nice and simple — the ideal service layer gives you control. It should give you the ability to control an object locally (even though it may be easier to do it through a physical interface) as well as from a distance.’

This is so obvious I’m surprised I have to mention it, except that advocates of embodied interaction always seem to miss that it’s actually a core attribute of a smart device that you don’t need to be physically present to control it or find out information from it. The exciting part of the Internet of Things is the Internet! And the Internet has been about collapsing distance and making the world accessible wherever you are. It’s no different with the Internet of Things.

Number two is about how a service layer lives with you over time. The ideal service layer supports you from initial set-up to the day you decide to recycle it.

This is one of the things I think is most bizarrely missed out on in most IoT products. Owning a piece of hardware is a relationship with a beginning, middle and end. You start off researching something to buy, you choose it, install it, use it, try and set it up to meet your needs, you buy supplies for it, you clean it, occasionally it breaks down and you throw it away, or you get it serviced and fixed. Eventually you decide to upgrade it.

Having a service layer transforms a thing from something a manufacturer sells to something that forms an ongoing relationship between manufacturer and consumer. There’s so much potential there it’s startling.

Number three is a huge one for me and again brings in some of those features that we saw with Zipcar (and interestingly come naturally to light switches). The ideal service layer understands that the device will be used by multiple people.

Again, these are things that if you look at almost other part of the Internet are obvious and baked in. Loads of services build on the Internet have concepts of identity. You can log in as someone and get access to various features. Different people can have different permissions. But for most IOT devices this is still completely absent. (This is a subject I’ve written about before in a piece about Thington: Why people are the most important part of a world of smart things…)

A quick example if you buy a nest thermostat first you install it in your home, then you create an account so that you and the thermostat are karmically connected. Then for every other person who lives in your house, or may come and visit and who you think might have to have some control over the temperature while they’re there, you simply sign in as you on their phones too.

This, I might suggest, is crazy. It makes it effectively impossible for it to react differently to different members of your family! It makes it impossible to know why a room is the temperature it is.

It also makes it possible for someone to come and stay at your house and then once they’ve left your house somehow continue to control the temperature in your house at long distance with you having no way to stop them! This has happened to me and it simply shouldn’t be possible. We should know better. This is easy to fix!

Number four is where all the promise of the Internet of Things lives and yet sometimes feels like the farthest away from coming into reality. The ideal service layer is able to work easily with all the things you have.

A smart light switch is great, but even better if it can coordinate with motion sensors in the house and with the geofences triggered by your phone to turn off precisely when you want them to. A sprinkler system works particularly well if it knows not to turn on when the windows are open, or when it has recently rained, or if you’re just about to walk through the garden.

But even if you have number four, then you still need number five for this power to be even trivially available for people. The ideal service layer does not expect you to become a programmer.

To create the kinds of coordinated responses I just talked about, someone has to somehow encode the expectations and the relationships and string them together. And at the moment there really aren’t any good ways to do this.

One way to stop you having to become a programmer is to make all the decisions automatically for you. This is the way that Nest attempts to do things — it’s just supposed to observe how you live your life and intuit what you want to do next.

I’ve interviewed dozens of people who have the nest and with a few exceptions they’ve all turned its magical learning features off. It just wasn’t doing the right things at the right time. I should add that they all loved their nests and found the ability to warm up the house on their way home really really useful. But the predictive things were making assumptions about their activities that were not immediately comprehensible by their users. And when the learning features were on the devices felt inscrutable to them, confusing and alien.

Nest thinks you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

But if Nest’s interfaces aren’t perfect, at least they’re vastly superior to the other end of the spectrum:

Yahoo Pipes

This is an example of the UI from Yahoo Pipes, but honestly it’s the visual equivalent of what a lot of programmers I know are doing in their homes with IoT devices. It’s pretty clear this can’t be the direction.

It’s possible to simplify this kind of interaction with services like IFTTT (If This Then That), which let’s you set one ‘trigger’ and then ‘one response’ in a pretty simple way. But while it’s simpler to assemble, to make any complex situation you end up making lots of simple rules instead of one complex one. It doesn’t really make things much better. And that’s because even the simplest requests a person might make actually end up being much more complex than the first appear. For example, people say they want this:

“When I get home, turn on some lights”

But when you actually dig into what they actually want — when you take into account the various devices, people and contexts that impact how you’d like your home — you end up with something a bit more like this:

I genuinely think giving people all the power of a complex rules system, without bombarding them with UI complexity, is the hardest problem in the Internet of Things at the moment and the one most deserving of extraordinary mental effort trying to fix. All the power of these devices hides between interfaces and metaphors that are totally incomprehensible to normal people.

Finally, we get to number six. The ideal service layer communicates clearly and politely in ways that are timely and familiar. And this is I think super important, because at the moment a whole bunch of devices that we use are pretty much totally inscrutable and we don’t know why they did the things they did. And when they do decide to tell us things they do so by aggressively beeping or sending us notifications by the truckload. Finding the model that makes these communications humane and polite is one of the other largest challenges we face.

Personally I think the answers here lie in the work we’ve been doing to make communication between people comprehendible — our social streams might be a great metaphor for a world of communicative devices. But more on that shortly. In the meantime, here are my six principles again:

These are the principles that we’ve been working with when we’re building Thington — but I think they’re equally applicable to almost any software layer for a connected object you can imagine.

They are a set of ideas that I think represent a service layer way beyond the simple idea of a remote control — a service built with them could follow you across devices, across contexts, across the world. I really think this is the way that we should be working, the direction we should be pushing in.


So I’ve talked at length through this piece about the core directions I see in front of us now in trying to make a world of connected devices comprehendible to normal people. One is a common refrain among talented designers — that interaction should be embedded more into the physicality of the things themselves. The other is my own position, that this world at scale only really makes sense — can only really be intuitive — if we accept that a service layer exists, has to exist, is useful and important. I’ve also argued that we should push the service layer forward away from being something bland and slight like a universal remote control towards something deeper and more interesting.

With Thington in particular we’re experimenting with a couple of metaphors that I think really embody these principles and push them further in interesting ways.

Firstly we’re treating the way your objects communicate with you the same way that Facebook treats your friends communicate with you — with human readable chatty, social media-like streams of information.

And secondly we’re trying to replicate the feeling of a butler or assistant suggesting things he can do to make your life better. In doing so we’re trying as much as possible to take the complex rule-making systems away from the general user.

Obviously, I’d love it if you went to and had more in depth look at what we’ve chosen to do, but if you don’t have a chance to do that, here’s a way of representing what we’re doing that is pretty fun (even if it does make it look super ridiculous).

Thington as a home for conversational devices and for the Thington concierge (or robotic butler)

These are just our attempts to live up to the principles we’ve put together and build an experience that takes the service layer way beyond what exists at the moment.

This may resonate with you, or it may not. I hope it does. But even if you don’t agree with me on the specifics — even if you think that tangible interactions and embodied interaction are the future of every device on the planet — the one thing I really need you to believe and take away with you is that this world of connected devices one way or another is coming.

Every day more devices, appliances, sensors and actuators, homes and cities are coming online in one way or another, and this is going to have a transformative effect on the world.

I personally believe that the company that creates the service layer for the Internet of Things could be as significant, powerful and large as Amazon, Google or Facebook — only they’ll not be the way you interact with your friends, but with the entire physical world that surrounded you. We’re on the brink of a new service layer for the physical world that operates at a truly planetary scale.

And the design patterns and interactions for this world are being formed right now, by people just like us. And if we don’t get involved and design and think about the complexities of the world, then other people will, and when they do they’ll encode in them ethics, belief systems, views on privacy and intrusiveness, a sense of the role of network in the life of the individual that may be very different from the world we’d like to live in.

This has been a long piece, so it might be difficult to stretch your memory right back to the beginning, but if you remember, I referred to this alleged misquote by Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

When I read his line, I’m always reminded of Clay Shirky’s response, referring to the Internet.

“Thomas Watson predicted that the world would not ever need more than five computers. We now know that he overestimated that by four” Clay Shirky

To which I would add only add that every day, more and more, this one computer in the world is the world in which we live.

It’s massive, wild, distributed and it’s starting to break free of the browser and the app and permeate every aspect of our homes, offices and public spaces.

So this is the time to get involved, to explore this space and find better patterns, better interactions, better models of how the future will work. This is the moment where we as designers can have the most impact, helping to define a User Experience, an ethical, powerful, transformative UX at quite literally a planetary scale.

The world of tomorrow could be transformed for the better if we work to make it so, and I believe very strongly we have it in us to make it truly extraordinary. And that’s all I have.


If you’re interested in trying out Thington, go to to find out more and download the app. If you have any questions or comments, ping us on our Twitter account @thingtonhq or e-mail us at and we’ll do everything we can to help you out. There’s a list of Frequently-Asked Questions on the Thington website too: Frequently Asked Questions.

If you’re a manufacturer or potential partner and you’re interested in Thington integration or want to find out more about what we’re doing, then e-mail us at

If you’re a member of the press and would like to talk to us then e-mail us at — there are also some resources for you available at

As I said at the beginning of this article, this talk was given originally at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2016. In this version I’ve removed a few of the jokes that only make sense if you know Webstock orNew Zealand very well. Having said that, if you haven’t been to New Zealand or to Webstock then you are really missing out and you should make an extra special effort to do so. It is my favourite event on the planet, the country is stunningly beautiful and the people are completely amazing. As always, thanks enormously to Tash, Deb, Mike, Ben and the Webstock audience for being incredibly welcoming and brilliant in every way.

The artwork in this piece was mostly drawn by Tom Coates in Adobe Illustrator, but the visual style of the whole thing comes from a beautiful piece of illustration by Chris Martin for Wired UK about setting up a smart home and my own efforts with the House of Coates twitter account. I loved the piece so much that I found a way to contact him online and I have two copies of it printed and framed — one in the office, one at home. My own efforts in this article are a bad pastiche of his extraordinary work, and I hope are received with the spirit they were created — as a statement of enormous respect to his creativity and a love of his style.

The typeface in the illustrations to this piece was made by Tom Coates in a weird little app for the iPad called iFontMaker. It is — as you might expect — based on a slightly stylized version of my handwriting. If you want to get your hands on it, please reconsider! There are much better typefaces in the world with a similar aesthetic. If I still can’t persuade you otherwise, I’m still working on all the special characters, and when I’ve done enough of them I’ll think about putting it out in public.

This material is in part based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (1621491). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the Songs of 2014

Last year I noted that at the end of a year everyone writes about all the best songs they’ve heard that year. But they’ve normally written all the pieces before the year is really over! What about those songs that came out in December? Did they get a fair hearing? I don’t think so! So I took a bit of a different approach and wrote about the songs I’d enjoyed most from the year before, songs that I’d had twelve months or more to digest properly! We’re now just a couple of weeks from 2016, so what better time to write about the best music of … 2014!

For those of you who have forgotten, 2014 was the International Year of Crystallography and the International Year of Family Farming! It’s the year that Russia annexed the Crimea and the US military started bombing ISIS. It was the year that Everything Was Awesome, the year the Galaxy got Totally Guardianed, and the year that Peter Jackson gave up, cried and produced the final Hobbit movie. Everyone was wearing jeans and t-shirts — you know like your granddad wears today! And the streets were full of Millennials doing their Millennial business all over the place. It feels like forever ago! What were we thinking!?

Röyksopp & Robyn: Monument

Let’s start with the best song of the year. The story goes that Robyn—after writing a song an hour for all of 2013 and putting them all onto one of the quinquagintuple volumes of Body Talk—became very tired. She was also angry that only one fan in Sweden had time to listen to all of the songs and had dozed off during ‘Hang with Me’ which everyone knows was the best one. While hanging out in a Nordic spa, she ran into Röyksopp, who—if you remember—had used their Scando precognition to put every good musical idea they’d ever have throughout their career into their first album and now were making a living assembling pine furniture and making music to play in elevators. Robyn and Röyksopp got to chatting and decided to do some music together and the rest is unfathomably wonderful odd, pop-dance and pseudo-jazzy, introspective, complex, long and saxophone-drenched history. I cannot articulate enough how much I love this track. It’s somehow brooding and enlightening at the same time. Can’t get enough of it.

Zola Jesus: Dangerous Days

A crazy woman in a rug stands by a lake or in a forest, doing complex and bizarre things with noise while draping belting vocals like huge sheets of fabric over highly structured beats. And just when you think you’ve got a sense of how she’s doing it, she goes all contrapuntal and tricksy and turns into pixels and low-poly computer visualisations. That mix of desolate forest and cold lake-side with computer precision and simulation sort of sums it up really. Just wonderful.

James Murphy for IBM: Match 181

In 2014, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem decided that he would create music out of the data that came out of US Open Tennis matches. Obviously this is an idea that has occurred to all of us at one time or other—I myself once considered creating a trombone-based operetta based on the 1975 Women’s final at Wimbledon—but Murphy really committed to it. The album that resulted is long, involved and occasionally quite dull, but there are moments on it—very, very long moments—that are just transcendent. This eighteen minute track just builds and grows and stumbles over itself and keeps going and patterns form and collapse and … it’s just awesome.

Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne: Rather Be

There are a couple of songs in this list which are quite definitely way up in the pop stratosphere and will almost certainly make proper musos look down at me through their assymetrical haircuts and beards. I’d like to say I’m above all that, but I’m not. Don’t judge me Hipster Millennials. I crave your approval. This is one of those songs — it’s just such a lovely collision of violins, dance beats and soully pop vocals. It’s like if Lisa Stansfield wasn’t shit! Oh god, what am I saying…

St. Vincent: Digital Witness

Last year I talked a lot about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and how much it annoyed me that people kept writing songs about how modern technology was, you know, totally alienating and stuff. (2015 has its share of these too, btw.) Well this song is equally infuriating—if not more so—because it’s about how infuriating it is that everyone wants to sort of make themselves famous and that things don’t matter unless you have put it on YouTube or something but it comes from an artist who has cultivated in recent years a particularly ‘look at me’ aesthetic and has all her videos on YouTube. I narrow my eyes at you, St Vincent. I narrow my eyes.

Seriously, artists! Why can’t you write about how bizarre and cool it is that we can do insane things now that we couldn’t do in the past?! Why can’t you think about the cool things the future is opening up without making it a big rant about how we should all play with bits of wood and wear chunky sweaters and live in yurts?! You don’t live in a yurt! You’re just being weird superior hypocrites!

Unfortunately I also really like this song and the video is cool so… I guess you should listen to the song but don’t buy the crap she’s selling? Stop looking at me like that, I’m only human.

Taylor Swift: All You Had To Do Was Stay

Sometime during 2014, some publication wrote a piece along the lines of “Holy crap, I think I really like this Taylor Swift Album”. It was around then when I started realising that everyone I knew was listening to 1989, and I decided to give it a try. My first impressions were not favourable. It’s got this sort of brittle, trebly, ultra-polished pop production thing going on that I’d normally get on with about as well as a jet fighter and a granite mountainside. But as I listened, the positivity and joy and frankly just the sheer quantity of perfect pop-songs won me over. By the end of the year, 1989 was #31 in Pitchfork’s songs of 2014 and in 2015 I’d be going to my first stadium show ever to experience the wonder of Tay-Tay first hand. It’s … distressingly good. Enough to make you reconsider fundamentals of your personality and taste. For me All You Had To Do Was Stay is the song, but I can’t find a video for it online so you’ll have to make do with Blank Space, which is also awesome.

Pixies: Blue-Eyed Hexe

Time to go super-retro now with a song that sounds like the kind of stuff I’d listen to when I was a spring chicken gallivanting like a magical elf through my University education. Now there were some who thought the Pixies releasing a new album was Not a Very Good Idea and that they now totally sucked. These people—to be as blunt as I’m capable of being—were only partially correct! Let’s be clear, you should not call an album ‘Indie Cindy’. It’s just not done. Why? Because it’s a really bloody terrible name. And yes, sure, it’s undeniable that a considerable number of the songs on that album sucked hard enough to empty the Atlantic in the time it would take you to say “Dead Whales”. But there are a few little gems in there that are at least as good as some of the Pixies older B-sides! And those B-sides were better than any song produced by anyone else ever! Give them a break! It wasn’t so bad! I like this song! And ‘Snakes’ was pretty fun too.

Tycho: Awake

My last song for 2014 isn’t a song at all, it’s an album, and it’s the thing I have listened to most from the year by such a huge margin that I couldn’t pick any one track to represent it. I don’t know what it is about this album — it’s definitely ofCalifornia and it may not make as much sense to people who don’t live here. I’ve only been here a few years and somehow it’s managed to encapsulate or represent or come to stand in for so many of the things that I love about this place. Obviously you have times when you look at tech culture or the Valley or the tract housing or the huge social problems that confront people who live here and it can get a bit overwhelming and dispiriting. But somewhere underneath all of that stuff somewhere is this just extraordinary natural beauty that I think makes even the worst stuff easier to deal with.

I have worked to Awake, I have driven to Awake, I have relaxed to Awake, I have even slept to Awake. It’s been my soundtrack for much of 2014 and almost all of 2015 and I cannot recommend it enough. Let it fill your brain up with its warm, heady, golden glow. You won’t regret it.

And that’s all I’ve got for 2014! I’ll see you in twelve months as we approach 2017 so we can go over all the wonders of 2015! You get that? Right? This isn’t too confusing?

xx Tom

Design Technology

An extremely quick and rough attempt to explain design and designers to people from other disciplines… V0.2

Warning: This is rough as a bucket of spanners, but I’m trying to summarize a whole bunch of stuff quickly. Feedback is appreciated. Work in progress etc.

Watching someone collide with some of the various ways that designers tend to describe themselves and how their job titles have shifted and changed over time, I tried to write up a quick summary of how I understand design practice, particularly focused on people working with products that have digital components. I’d love to get any feedback or thoughts that any of you might have — feel free to add a comment on the side or query stuff, and at some point in the future I may attempt to write it up in a more coherent form.

A particular problem I’ve noticed is an absolute brain fart that I’ve sometimes had from people who can’t get past that designers are fundamentally about making things ‘pretty’.

Well for a start — yes we are. A huge part of design is working out how to communicate a product, sell a product, make the experience of using a product evocative, emotionally enriching and pleasant. But there are other skills that are lumped under ‘design’ as a discipline and any individual designer you meet will have strengths in one area or another to a greater or lesser degree.

This piece is just an attempt to summarize some of the things that people who operate under the title of ‘designer’ might focus on, or be good at. Some designers are very flexible across the spectrum, others focus in on one area or another and are deeper in that one as a result.

At a first approximation in a primarily digital environment these are the kinds of things that designers are focused on:

Look & Feel / Visual design:

Does it look and feel appealing / professional etc?
Do you have an appropriate emotional reaction to the thing that makes you want to use it more?

Communication design
(in the context of internet products):

Does a user know what the thing you’re making is for?
Can they tell what kind of thing it is from looking at it?
Does it reveal how it’s supposed to fit into your life?
Is the language used clear and unambiguous?

Interaction Design
(and a bit of information architecture):

Can you tell how to use it, does it make sense?
Does it work like you expect it to?
Does it make it easier to do complicated things?
Do you get a sense of how everything fits together?
Would you know where to find a particular feature you wanted?

Experience Design, Audience Research & Invention:

What are the moments in the lifecycle of the thing that you’re making that are opportunities for it to explain itself or communicate with users?
Does an existing product match with the needs you have in your actual life?
Do users have needs that are unmet by existing products and services that you could meet with a new idea.
Is there a way to communicate an idea or a concept that reveals something about the world through an object or a project.

This is a bit of an arbitrary arrangement roughly arranged to go from details of execution through to the concept —or from the concrete to the abstract.

In this arc, the ones nearer the top are focused less on the guts of the project and more about improving and enhancing it. The ones at the bottom are more about the very idea at the heart of the thing, that will be expressed in the crafts higher up the ‘stack’…

Generally the more clarity you have about things nearer the bottom, then the easier and more focused the thing will be as you go up the stack towards the visual layer.

It’s easy to say that the visual layer, therefore, is less important — ‘just coloring in’ — but I’d protest about that. The coloring in is the thing that people respond to first, the first thing they see, the first experience they have of your product, and something that can frame and color every experience they see with the product. Plus it’s bloody difficult and hard to do well. A designer who can make an evocative product but can’t think through the deeper issues systematically is no worse than a great structural thinker who can’t communicate their ideas well. People have strengths in different areas, and you hire to try and balance them.

would say though that beautiful design that expresses the essence of something probably has to understand that essence, so some knowledge of what’s going on in the guts is fundamental. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those people have to be working intensively on the core idea. Sometimes they just help you refine your thoughts and digest them into a simple narrative that they can express visually.

And yes, you’ll notice lots of overlap with other disciplines, particularly ‘Marketing’ and ‘Product’. Unsurprisingly, if you’re going to build something, then you can’t just split up decisions between the disciplines. There just IS overlap between disciplines, and if there isn’t, all it really means is that design or marketing or product is taking on responsibilities that are normally (but not always necessarily) shared or split.

While these are the things that designers are there to do, there are loads of different techniques and strategies for how they can do them from card sorting to interviews to paper prototypes to personas to wild drug-fueled ecstatic dance binges, through to wireframing, mood boards and a billion other things. Quite a lot of design conferences are about the specific techniques people use in different areas of the design stack and how useful they are, ways to be faster at the process, or more thorough on the process, or how to integrate design practice and engineering or product in various effective ways. They’re also about how the various shifts in context that happen as devices become more powerful, more flexible, change shape and interaction patterns effect the practice and the techniques you’d choose to employ. etc. etc.

The titles that people use are, at some level, attempts to articulate what part of the design spectrum the person feels their strength is, or what particular design need a company has. Do you want a designer who can make your product clearer and simpler to use? Then you’re looking for an interaction designer above everything else. If you want a designer who can figure out how to make a billion dollar product fit better into people’s lives to assert your dominance in an area, then you’re looking for someone who will do interviews, research, ethnographic studies and usability testing. If you want your product to resonate a bit more with people emotionally, and for people to get a bit more of the feel of a relationship with it, then a visual or communications designer is probably where you should be starting.

One thing designers do a lot which I think confuses other disciplines is talk about what design is. I think this is mainly because almost everyone in tech products spends a bit of time doing some level of design work to a greater or lesser degree. If you build an interface for something, or a web page that connects to other web pages in a way you’re doing design work, in the same way that if you learn a bit of HTML you’re doing some software engineering. There’s a job of work for designers in continually re-explaining and re-marketing what they do that’s different from — and ideally more professional than —the work that other disciplines do in these areas. This article probably falls under that remit a bit.

After all there are engineers (mostly in tech start-ups and large engineer-led companies) who consider some of the things I’ve listed above as part of their discipline and only let the designers come in to do the work of polishing the front-end to a singular shine. On the other hand there are designers (mostly in agencies) who don’t let engineers do anything other than implement their work and wouldn’t listen to them in any area that has a connection to design. There are product people who are focused on marketing and metrics and leave all this other work completely to designers, and there are others who are much more involved, or own the product definition stuff completely and contribute to the way the design unfolds. And all of these approaches are perfectly legitimate ways to work and build things, if you’ve hired the right people for the job you want done, and if across your company you’re covering the range of skills that you need to make a product well.

A particular weakness of mine is visual design and branding. I’m far from awful at it, but I never feel like the visual layer of a product I design represents the thing I’m making as clearly and effectively as I’d like. There are people who are much, much better at that stuff than me, and I like to work with them very much indeed. The intelligence and skill a good graphic designer or brand expert can bring to a problem is a much undervalued skill in the tech industry.

My particular sense is that different disciplines lead different kinds of companies but that the best products emerge out of an interplay between business (looking for money-making opportunities), engineering (representing the space of all possible-to-make products) and design (whose focus is on translating between the code/business and members of the public).

In the end for me, design work is fundamentally focused on the form something takes and how that connects and communicates to the people who are going to use or engage with that thing. But form isn’t separate from function, or business or material science or computing or any of the other things that influence what the product or object or made thing is and how it works in its wider context and so you can and should expect a practicing designer to have some varying interest or engagement with those areas if they’re going to do their job effectively.

Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the Songs of 2013

It’s just turned into 2015 and the internet is full of lists of all the best songs of 2014. But how on earth is one supposed to have fully digested all the music and events of a year by the second in which it ends? That doesn’t make any sense. So here below are the songs that I enjoyed most from 2013, after … y’know … a full year’s careful and appropriate consideration…

Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix)

While the rest of the songs below are unordered, without any doubt at all this James Murphy remix of David Bowie was my top song of 2013. It’s long, epic, rambling and yet sharp and punchy at the same time. It’s got traces of classic Bowie grafted into it but it is at no point a piece of nostalgia. And it does that thing where structure emerges out of noise and then collapses again before returning that just does something dirty and pleasing to my frontal lobes.

Blood Orange: You’re Not Good Enough

A bit of an odd song — lots of lovely syncopation, crisp noises and a bit of a funky feel married to nasty passive aggressive sentiment and emotional complexity. A song like what happens as an iron spike is rammed through bits of your brain that aren’t really supposed to be connected and you have all these brilliant revelations and you feel like you understand the world, but unfortunately you’ve now got aphasia and you can’t explain it to anyone and well basically you’re brain damaged.

Favored Nations: The Set-Up

I feel like I should be ashamed that I heard this song on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto 5, but I’ve decided that instead I’m going to wear that as a badge of pride because it demonstrates that I’m still down with the kids and understand their funky bullshit.

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

A really annoying song about how digital media is like disconnecting us from the reality of the world around us or some crap like that. Much like St Vincent’s Digital Witness (another song I love which is also a pile of reactionary balls) it triggers my inner Bowie, whom I believe in his prime would never have sat there making ominous self-important songs about what was going wrong with the future, but would have leapt at it teeth bared and wrestled the damn thing to the ground. Then he would have sat there ripping bits off it and eating them with his gleaming brilliant metal disco teeth. I’m pretty sure it’s not accidental that Bowie himself only turns up in the song about halfway through right at the point that it decides to stop being whiny and get sexily apocalyptic instead. A world in which all meaning is collapsed and we’re left falling endlessly through the reflection of a reflection of a reflection? I’d have cigar and a glass of something bubbly in the middle of that… Cheer up, Arcade Fire!

Arctic Monkeys: Do I Wanna Know?

For some reason the songs that have kept with me are all the ones that pull out a feather and use it to tickle my Freudian Death Drive (which, now I come to think about it, absolutely should be the thing powering the transit of Hotblack Desiato’s Space Ship in Hitchhikers). I think I like fatalism and cynicism as long as I get to roll around in it naked in my head. This is a song made for dirty, bleak, slightly angry, very sexy wallowing.

Haim: My Song 5

I don’t entirely understand Haim, but that album they did the year before last year stuck with me in a way that that album that Chvrches did really didn’t. Typically I’ve gone for the song that’s the most chopped around and odd. It’s like The Bangles and Pixies were chopped up into bits and joined together into a weird set of weird angular, unbalanced zombie pop singers. The addition of a bit of a shoddy rap in the video and the video blocking out all the funky bits of the song is a bit annoying, but the song itself is pretty great.

Lorde: Team

So Lorde’s funny, right? She was awesome in South Park, she’s done songs that are so ubiquitous that you basically wish you could never have heard them because at least an eighth of your brain is dedicated singing them to you over and over when you’re trying to get some work done or go to sleep. And you sort of want to hate her because she’s like nine years old. But there’s just one problem — she’s actually really good! She’s one of the sort of art-school, song structure as designed landscape, with tensions and balances and contrasts and stuff. But she also manages to get quite a lot of emotion and insight into them. Blarg. I don’t know. I like it. That’s the point.

iamamiwhoami: y

If you don’t get on well with women with funny voices waving their arms around like Kate Bush on mushrooms, then you and I were never really destined to be friends… But I’d ask you still to suspend disbelief and push yourself through this bizarre Gaga/Bush video hybrid and try the song. If your Willing Suspension of Disbelief can’t get you through the confused baby that some anarchic animal/human handler appears to have released on set for no apparent reason, then I’ll forgive you, but I still think you’ll have missed out.

Calexico: Frontera/Trigger (Live)

An odd one to end with — utterly unlike everything else above, but still stunning. A live reworking of two classic Calexico songs with all the old Spaghetti Western plotlines but now newly saturated with a wild cocktail of fresh operatic and mariachi juices. It’s still got that bombast and bleakness that I like and it builds, my god it builds, towards the most glorious, eye-roll-back-in-your-head moment of pure wonder towards the end. You just have to let it run away with you.

And that’s that! Turns out that Daft Punk’s opus didn’t stick with me much and nor did Chvrches. Who knew! I hope you all had a great 2013 (and then a sufficiently adequate 2014) such that you’re now open to being wished good luck in the year ahead, which is 2015… Next on the One Year Late Review: Miley Cyrus twerking — what was all that about?!

Yours, Tom xx

Books & Literature Technology

How I stay informed…

A few months ago, a lovely chap called Kavi Guptta asked me how I stay informed. I wrote way too much and he had to edit it down aggressively. For anyone who is interested, here are my full, unedited responses

Describe your daily reading habit:

My reading habits have changed a lot over the years. I did postgrad work in the humanities, so I read a huge amount of academic literature in my mid-twenties — to the extent that it almost started to feel like I was bombarded by words everywhere I went. And yet I liked writing and reading — they feel like scaffolds for thinking about things—so I kept up that tradition of over-consumption when I abandoned academia and ran away to join the Internet.

This was sort of the mid-nineties, and I was still doing it by the earliest days of weblogs in 1999 to 2005-ish. I had a ritual of waking up around 8am, spending about an hour on the web reading and writing on plasticbag.orgbefore heading into work—which thankfully was a pretty short trip—and then keeping up with various discussions and news sites throughout the day. This escalated even more when RSS readers started to become popular. I’d be trying to keep up with several hundred sites — mostly interesting individuals talking about technology and the web—but I’d also be a member of several online communities where I could stretch my legs in various other areas.

Probably three things changed my reading practices. Firstly, my work got much more involving and creative. By the time I was running a little R&D team at the BBC I found myself attacking increasingly meaty and interesting problems on a daily basis, and that pushed me into a very different mode. General reading started to fade away and started to be replaced with much more directed exploration around the things that we were building. That’s stayed with me. A lot of the time I stumble upon really odd new areas simply because one of the projects I’m working on involves me knowing about it. And because I really like the transition point where new technology starts to pushes into the mainstream, I’ve followed all kinds of areas from social software, media distribution, the web of data, location services through to today the Internet of Things.

Secondly, I started to realize that the conversations moving around the internet on a daily basis were starting to repeat themselves. My first exposure to the ‘are bloggers journalists’ discussion is now twelve years old — but it would reappear every three or four years as a topic of discussion again. For the people involved in them, they’re no doubt interesting and new but I started to realize that the larger trends in technology don’t actually change on a daily basis and that once you’re up to speed with the area you’re currently focused on, you barely need to keep half an eye on the daily chatter.

Finally, the ways that I could engage in conversations with my friends or follow complete strangers changed a lot. I pick up a lot from just being in a room with interesting people and letting that inspire me to wander off in strange directions. Today, things like Twitter mean that I can pretty easily absorb the general zeitgeist by dipping in and out of what interesting people are discovering or pointing at in the background of my day.

Now, a normal day for me probably starts with checking Twitter to see what my friends are up to, and then I’ll probably have it on in the background pretty much all day. I dip in and out when I’m bored or when something interesting appears to be happening and I probably stumble on most of my news that way. On my way to work I listen to podcasts from the UK like In Our Time. I glance at The Guardian every day, read MacRumourscompulsively because I find Apple fascinating, and spend a lot of time on iO9 to satisfy my nerd needs.

Beyond that I’m now subscribed to a few RSS feeds again, but they’re very different from ten years ago — they’re either weird fragments of the future, like BLDG BLOG or Future Drama or they’re deep design blogs where I can get exposed to beautiful things and extreme craftsmanship of various kinds. As I get older, I get more and more interested in the complexities and depths of craft — ink traps in typography, printing methods, modernist design and stuff like that. I love that dedication to detail and the way that your appreciation of something deepens when you understand why it is the way that it is. Otherwise I mostly focus on reading and research for particular weird product problems I’m having when I’m trying to assemble things in my head, although I do read a fair number of non-fiction books on my iPad and a lot of shiny, ostentatious, brightly-coloured comic books full of big weird ideas.

How do you learn?

The short answer is I learn too slowly. The longer answer is that it’s mostly pretty directed — I like collecting new skills, but I mostly collect them because I have something I want to do with them. As I said, I started off planning to be a humanities academic before I discovered the web and when I had discovered it—like many people of my generation—I sort of had to do everything. I had to get my head around the code side, the design side and what would now be called the ‘product’ side. I spent a lot of time writing for the web, designing sites, building them, and while I’ve had to specialize a lot over the years, I try really hard to be able to talk intelligently to designers, engineers, business people and product people as well as critics and thinkers outside my specific area.

At this moment in history it feels to me like a lot of things that were separate and silo’d have been put in the same territory (the internet) sometimes for the first time ever. And so it feels like the greatest creative potential can come from trying to see how those things or ideas can connect to each other to make something new. That’s sort of how I understand things right now — that the more things you know, the more connections between them you can generate and the more amazing stuff happens.

By way of an example, a while ago when I was first getting into thinking about the Internet of Things I had to recognize that I didn’t really know how to manufacture physical products. My business partner is good with electronics and soldering irons and stuff like that, but that seemed like a mountain of work for me to get into at this stage. So I followed the lead of a few of my friends and started exploring how you could mock-up videos of objects apparently in people’s homes using 3D software and After Effects. To give myself a goal, I decided I’d try and do three or four very short videos that I could use in a talk I was going to give. It was enormously painful and the videos are not very good, but they communicated the idea.

But interestingly, we also started working on a different project around that time focused on interactive graphics for TV. My week of fiddling with After Effects was enormously helpful in thinking about what the possibilities might be for a live 3D graphics compositing + a TV programme and we explored all kinds of fun ways of integrating live data into TV shows using the right color palettes, vanishing points, while being sensitive to edits and all kinds of other stuff. That little bit of exploration in one area just triggered all kinds of fun ideas (plus we got to work with Greg Borensteinwho wrote the book on hacking the Kinect, which helped). Short directed forays with specific goals into weird areas end up being really really useful.

Where do you go for inspiration outside
of your day-to-day expertise?

One thing that has been very clear to me throughout my years in tech has been how useful my abortive PhD was. It had absolutely nothing to do with tech in any way whatsoever — I was writing about identity politics, film theory and Ancient Greek tragedy. But it gave me a whole range of mental tools and ways of looking at the world — new ways of understanding that things haven’t always been the way they are today. I genuinely believe that you pick up weird mental or creative strategies throughout your life and that a widely read person who is keen to employ some of what they learn will always do more interesting (if not always more valuable) work than someone who is super deep in only one or two areas.

So I guess if I had to point to non-tech specific areas that give me some perspective or inspiration, they’d probably include history or literature or graphic design a lot, as well as fantastic TV shows, books and comics. I mentioned In Our Time earlier, but I can’t recommend it enough — forty five minutes each week of a completely different subject, from the arrival of trains into Britain, or Ancient Alexandrian Librarians all the way through to Dark Matter. Matt Webb introduced me to it years and years ago. I suppose the truth is that you never really know what might trigger an idea for you, so exposing yourself to a lot of different things is probably the best strategy.

One particular thing that I do find very good for inspiration though is Pinterest. I know that for many people Pinterest is all about collecting hairstyles or recipes, but there are millions of people on it, each of whom cares about something different. I follow people interested in typography, visual design, illustration, information visualization, maps, network-connected devices and many other things. It’s such a great way to trigger bits of your brain into doing something useful but unexpected. I use it every day…

What’s one piece of advice for someone who wants to do what you do?

I’m not entirely sure I know precisely what it is that I do, but I think more generally my advice would be to play a lot, explore lots of things, sketch lots of ideas, learn weird bits of software that interest you and do something with them — to fundamentally try and work out what it is that you actually enjoy doing and then to do more of it. For me it gradually became clear to me that what I liked more than anything else was making things that I could show to other people or that other people could play with or use. The internet taught me how much fun that could be, and since then that element of my daily work has stuck with me as the fundamental goal — at times I’ve gone astray from it (taking the money instead of doing work I can be proud of) and all that did is make me hate my job and start to hate my discipline. But when I get back to making something that I actually care about with people that I like, there’s genuinely nothing better, occasionally harder but definitely more rewarding.

Other than that, I’d say that if you can find a passion that’s fulfills you that actually pays the bills then you’re incredibly lucky. Not everyone gets to find that in their lives. Don’t hold back, jump right in and do it as much as you can.

If you’d like to see what effect a good editor can have on my writing, the original article is here:

Design Internet of Things Technology

In praise of boring objects

This piece was originally written for the Things conference in Berlin in May 2014. It was originally posted on Medium.

Unlike the moral universe, the long arc of technology curves not towards justice, but boredom. And—at one level at least—it’s boredom that we aspire to.

We might initially thrill at a world of new functionality, new abilities and new super-powers, but we also want and expect that initial strangeness and magic to be gradually digested down into the substrate of our lives — becoming a part of the infrastructure and background of our world, barely visible, unacknowledged, almost natural.

It only takes a moment to see how uncomfortable we are with the insane, sustained complexity of the world we inhabit. Simply look around and attempt to imagine the origins and histories—the family trees—of all the products, services and objects that you can see. When you do, the spiralling complexity of it all is enough to give you vertigo.

Each thing you glance towards started with the mining of minerals in far-off lands, the harvesting of crops, the breeding and culling of animals, the processing of materials, complex machinery that grids and boils and melts and refashions. In parallel, each object has an intellectual history – reaching back across the creative labour of two thousand years worth of thinkers whose work brought us to steam, electricity, resistors, computers. Material history and scientific progress are brought together in designs on computers or sketch pads, with human hands and minds stretched across the planet, co-ordinating a collision of components from which emerge functionality, form and colour. Still more diverse people across the planet are involved in the polishing, packaging and distribution of these things, before the great ships cross the seas or trace lines across the sky, carrying these objects and materials to new homes. Finally, these objects are arranged in all their staggering overlapping complexity on the street in front of you, or the office in which you work, or the home that you love — by thousands of interconnected yet independent individuals — each object bringing new abilities into the world and into your life, making things possible that were never possible before.

So why don’t we choose to live in this world of magic and wonder all the time? Why don’t we choose to be continually surprised and stimulated by the intricate patterns formed in every direction, stretching off into the distance? Why instead do we let that complexity disappear, dissolve into our daily experience? The answer is simple — because it would be overwhelming. There’s only so much space for magic and weirdness in our lives and we reserve that space for the immediately strange, or dangerous or novel.

The small amount of drama that we’re able to deal with each day is just a sliver, shiny brightly on the water. The great invisible iceberg under the ocean is the realm of the useful, of the everyday, of the objects that don’t continually push themselves front of mind, and that’s where products and services must eventually aim if they are to be fully integrated into our lives.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the Internet of Things. It’s been almost thirty years since people started hypothesizing about a world of ubiquitous and pervasive computation, and twenty since the first toasters and coffee pots were connected to the internet. Over that time we’ve seen endless playful experiments and explorations of how objects might connect to each other and to us in thrilling new combinations of object + computation + network. But almost none of this work has reached the general public.

Only now is that starting to change, and fundamentally that’s because evolving technologies and interaction patterns have reached a sufficient level of maturity to finally let the potential unfold. You can see it everywhere — in the pervasive internet access that now spreads across the airwaves, in cheap networking components, in tiny computers stamped out by the millions and available for pennies, and in new interfaces in everyone’s pockets through which devices and appliances can be better controlled and understood. The world of the near future now looks like a place where every object can be connected to the network cheaply and easily. Finally it seems like the Internet of Things is ready to go mainstream.

More interestingly, this new generation of Internet of Things ideas seems qualitatively different from those that came before – they’re more in tune with the deeper affordances of the Internet. One very significant move has been the layering of the concept of multiple user accounts onto physical items — a now banal element of most web services is transformative when layered onto physical objects or spaces. Zipcar alone shows how some of the affordances of web services have the power to change how we interact with physical objects completely. A car is no longer an object that is owned, but a service that you can commission or spin up as needed.

And instead of adding great chunks of immediately out-of-date hardware into appliances with decade-long replacement cycles, much more of the intelligence is being abstracted out onto the network. To use a biological analogy, the objects themselves increasingly contain only eyeballs (sensors) and muscles (actuators). The nervous system and the brain are now elsewhere, abstracted out into the cloud, where they can be built upon and enhanced over the lifetime of a product. This service layer is becoming ever more as important as the physical object itself.

But for me the most important change is the move from IoT concept cars and interaction design experiments to a new world where the things we’re building are simply, cleanly useful. This latest generation of objects no longer ‘perform’ the internet—they’re not laden with touchscreens or web browsers or e-mail clients. They are instead just using the network to make better light switches, fridges and dishwashers — things that just make people’s lives a bit better.

Nest’s smoke alarms and thermostats are among the first of this new breed of products that are not simply concerned with showing off and instead are fundamentally concerned with making better objects using the network as a material. And other manufacturers are starting to follow in their wake, with large companies that produce every kind of appliance in the home, office or wider world starting to wake up to the possibilities. This is new, and as far as I’m concerned it constitutes the largest and most significant shift that we’ve seen in IoT for years.

These companies are looking for simple life-enhancing benefits from connected objects — whether it’s the tumble drier that turns on when you leave the house, the lights that turn down in any room you’re not occupying, or the fridge that informs you if it’s malfunctioning and schedules a service automatically. They’re looking at the clear value in the more effective management of energy across smart grids. They’re looking at ways to protect users from theft by making objects that simply stop working when they are stolen. And they’re looking at the new business models that become possible when you find new ways to share objects — whether it be the local home improvement tools that can be used by people only when they need them, through to appliances that you don’t buy but pay for by the use.

It’s everyday things like this that will get the Internet of Things out into the world. But it won’t happen by itself. Large appliance companies are no more able to turn their appliances into services than web technologists and service designers are able to assemble fridge-freezers out of JSON and iPhone apps. As never before, manufacturers and online service designers need to collaborate to build something collectively that is genuinely new — simple, useful, networked products that bring genuine value to people’s lives. And we need to help that collaboration happen, reaching out to each other as we do so, if we’re really going to make a world of useful, networked smart objects.

And that is the goal — a planet of objects writing and responding to the network, knitting themselves together in a new pervasive infrastructure that opens up endless new possibilities for all of us. That may sound like a leap for a discipline currently focused on super-evolved toasters and conversational light-switches, but think for a moment about where we go next.

The stage beyond this one is full of latent burgeoning potential that we cannot tap—or potentially even understand—until the network is pervasively woven into the world. Just as the social network couldn’t happen until enough people were online to make it interesting or useful, so new categories of services will start to appear as more and more objects come online.

In the near future, the world we’re building together is fundamentally about ovens and dishwashers, parking meters and water pumps. But the services we build today for our cars and phones and robot vacuum cleaners are together forming the bedrock for a tomorrow that (from here) seems much less predictable and far more exotic. The smart thermostat and the car-sharing services you use today are test-beds for the next fifty years, and the ideas we build into them now will unfold in fascinating ways that could have huge implications on everything from public space to the very concepts of ownership and sharing. Fundamentally, in our work today we’re starting the process of blending the physical territory of the world and the digital map of the world into something that becomes better than either could be by itself. Perhaps even one where the distinctions between the two no longer seem relevant or useful.

By the time we get there, it may all seem very obvious, prosaic and — grudgingly we can admit — probably profoundly useful. But for the moment this sliver of light on the water is unknown, untapped, unprocessed and fascinatingly weird and new. And we have time to appreciate that wonder, to taste it, to bring form and shape to it, to dream and argue about it, even as we day by day build towards it. The future, at its best, is a site of endless potential and change. And while in the end, technology might tend towards boredom, the creative joy is getting there.

This piece was originally written for a free publiction given out at the Things Conference hosted in Berlin in May 2014.

Politics Technology

On being adult about childish behaviour…

I promised myself I wouldn’t get involved in the whole debate about Adria Richards, but as it drags on and more and more articles are written about it, I find myself troubled by the extent of the polarisation going on.

On one side we have the people who are arguing fundamentally that Adria Richards over-reacted to what appear to be a number of clumsy and childish jokes – jokes that (from what I’ve read at least) appear to be of the ‘he’s got a big dongle’ variety. My opinion? Yeah, I think she massively over-reacted, made a performance out of the whole thing that was entirely unnecessary and got a couple of people told off at a conference who maybe over-stepped the line but probably didn’t deserve that kind of public kicking.

On the other side we have the people arguing that Adria was treated absolutely abhorrently afterwards and that the sheer depth and violence of the things said about her and thrown at her – the volume of the vitriol she had to experience – went way beyond blunt sexism. These people are arguing that this demonstrates structural misogyny, clear discrimination, the horrible consequences that meet a woman who prominently stands up and makes a stand. My opinion? Yeah, that all makes sense too. She was indeed treated awfully. All of us working in the industry should be ashamed of the whole situation. It’s been hideous, horrific. Beyond that. It’s morally wrong.

But here’s the bit that puzzles me. Both of these positions seem to me to be entirely correct and both of them seem to be completely compatible as well. It seems to me to be a vanishingly small proportion of people under fifty who would be legitimately offended by a big dongle joke. It also seems to me to be a tiny proportion of the people in the industry who seriously think that death threats, rape threats and massive sexist comments are something to be encouraged.

So why has it all become such an ungodly fight? We seem to have approached a point where any actual sensible discussion of questions raised by this situation is borderline impossible. The positions are polarising to such an extent that—rather than just accepting what the vast majority of us must surely know to be true—everyone’s being pushed, or pushing themselves, to the edges. The arguments now appear to be that either Adria fucked up and for this reason she deserved to get rape threats, or that since she got rape threats she cannot possibly have fucked up.

These are both ridiculous positions! These are insane positions! These are totally irrational positions! In our attempts to find meaning in this event we’ve got people trying to find a neat narrative that wraps everything up elegantly and cleanly. But such an attempt is doomed to fail here. No one comes out of this cheerfully. There is clumsy human self-importance on the one side and a great swathe of unpleasant, unwashed, dickish, abusive and disgusting morons on the other.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d never for one minute suggest that Adria’s actions and the responses to them are commensurately awful. The horrific attacks on her remain beyond the pale, where her behaviour (in my opinion at least) was merely a bit eye-roll worthy. It’s just important to remember that the extent of the venom she’s had to endure does not in itself make her an infallible saint – any more than the error she made in any way justified the demonisation she’s experienced.

The world is more serious and flawed and nuanced than these narratives would make us believe. The tech industry is not 90% full of sexist arseholes desperate to drag all women down. Nor is it a magical meritocracy in which all the right people achieve riches. Over-simplifying things to this degree makes it harder to solve the problems that we have as a culture. It makes it harder for us to fix things. We can’t afford to just react like this. It helps no one. We have to be adult about childish behaviour.

Ethics Politics Talks

A New Sincerity

This piece was originally delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, and then published on Medium.

One of the most fundamental problems of our ages is that we’ve lost our trust in the very idea of truth. The loss of ‘truth’ corrodes every aspect of our societies and lives and it’s something we must actively fight against if we want a better world…

I believe we need a New Sincerity. I believe we need a new focus on ideas so basic and fundamental to our lives and to our public discourse that they affect everything else we do, but which have drifted, been co-opted and now stand to be abandoned as old-fashioned, even naïve.

I think we need to get past our current cynicism and ironic detachment, drag the best out of the ideologies of the last hundred years and form something entirely new out of them. Something solid and lasting and boring and brilliant. Sincerity.

For me Sincerity is really two things.

Firstly—and this may be a tough idea to swallow—I believe Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth. It’s not just about saying what you feel. It’s not trying really hard to believe in what you say. It’s not even believing in what you say. It’s much more important and fundamental than that. It’s about believing that there is such a thing as truth and that truth matters. I say it again, Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth.

And secondly—as much as possible—I think Sincerity is a belief in the honest and open expression of that truth. It’s a belief that it is important not just to acknowledge the existence of truth, but to make an effort to discover it, and then to express that truth appropriately and as well as you can.

These statements may seem self-evident—that truth is real and good and that we should attempt to express it honestly—but I’m no longer sure that they are. In fact, I think these views are increasingly seen as old-fashioned and naïve, even stupid. And I believe that this is because that both of these ideas have been under systematic assault for decades.

And I believe that without a belief in sincerity and truth, our political debates, our media, our way of life becomes nothing more than a place where arguments are played against one another like Pokemon. Everything becomes a strategy to win the debate—gotta catch ‘em all—no matter the effect on the world. It’s cock-fighting on the Hindenburg.

A short story about truth

So what is the shape of the assault that sincerity and truth are subject to? Where is its origin?

At one level, you could go back to any political thinker throughout the centuries—back to Plato perhaps—to see the background of this particular story. Or maybe you could take another tack, and explore the emergence of public relations or advertising.

But part of me sees our current situation as the particular result of a particular moment in time, and that’s when ideas that emerged in the political left and the humanities departments of our major universities—both groups that I’ve had a significant stake in—start to get appropriated and abused.

This is one way in which that story might have unfolded.

Over the last century, people from all kinds of different backgrounds—people historically discarded or sidelined by society—gradually started to rise up and demand rights and visibility.

And in the process they demanded access to the narratives and histories of our world. Was an ‘Intimate History of Sex’ really a history of sex at all if it only talked about straight people? Could you have a history of Europe when half the population wasn’t even mentioned?

These questioning voices managed to expose the traditional writing of history as having been written by a very narrow group of academics with an equally narrow set of preoccupations. These were people actively—if unconsciously—tracing a path from the past to the present to create arguments or justifications for the way things were. They were explaining their own inevitability; their rights to power. These narratives of the past needed to be put under pressure, and when they were, they exploded.

And from there the divergent voices moved on to attack the grand narratives of previous ages: everything from Manifest Destiny, the Civilizing West, the Natural Superiority of some races, Victorian morality, all the way through to Capitalism and Communism. And these new perspectives revealed these narratives to not just be natural truths of existence simply described by impartial men, but as new ways of creating and enforcing control on the world.

And having done that they fought for a pluralisation of voices, a rejection of the very idea of the Grand Narrative, and a radical re-examination of history itself. Churchill said (or may have said), “History is written by the victors”, but this new generation believed that it should be revised and expanded and criticised and opened up for everyone.

And this new approach to history was just one of the new stories that collectively challenged all of our assumptions and orthodoxies to the extent that we even began to question the ground upon which we stood.

Derrida and deconstruction, post-structuralism, postmodernity. Fascinating ideas that pulled our thinking away from the physical and directly political into a world of language and discourse, where thousands of voices and ideas resonated and competed and intermingled with one another endlessly through a real of symbol and concept.

We seemed to be moving into an environment composed of polyphonous voices, brands and narrative mixed with the numinous and magical. And that was before the internet came with its new set of promises and dreams. Universities were full of people aspiring to a Philosophical Singularity or Rapture – eager to shed the fixed, stolid ideas of the generations that came before them, combust into intellect and finally embrace the divine.

And somewhere in the middle of all of these discussions, believing in truth—that things actually happened, that there are facts, that argument can only be made on evidence, that having a strongly held belief is simply not enough to build public policy upon—somehow truth became unfashionable.

And the graduates of our universities went out into the world with new skills and techniques to interrogate the world with, and a slightly woolly sense of the value of everyone’s voice and a deep suspicion of anyone attempting to argue for the real, the true, the solid, the definitive. And they look at the world at an ironic distance, enjoying things or critiquing them at arms length as if they weren’t quite real.

And slowly and horrifyingly in the background, political operators from every party and background spotted the power of these new ideas and intellectual techniques. Perhaps they even believed in them too. And they cherry-picked the most potent and they started to employ them without mercy.

A loss of sincerity

Today then, it looks to me as if great swathes of public institutions, politicians and media, academics and public intellectuals have given up on truth, and see no value in sincerity.

For them, sincerity is now simply about arguing earnestly for what you strongly believe. But it’s belief unsupported by facts in defiance of knowledge and information. It’s belief that rejects truth. How can politicians be considered ‘sincere’ when they stand up and deny climate change?

If—when confronted with massive evidence from reputable sources—you still choose to go with what your gut says, then you must be a person with no respect for truth. And if you no longer believe in truth, then how can you be sincere?

Our press too are not sincere when they dredge the muttered effluvia of our representatives for material with which they can manufacture controversy.

They’re not sincere when they present a debate between two sides of an argument that only truthfully has one side. They’re fabricating conflict, and they’re doing so for the spectacle. They have no respect for truth.

You can see this even more clearly in the experts they get to speak in opinion pages or on TV. They’re all representatives of political parties or advocates for them in one way or another. They no longer believe in the impartial expert who can present an argument fairly. Apparently everyone is biased nowNo one is trustworthy. With such beliefs, how can they be sincere?

That poisonous imp who took over from Larry King on American Television has expressed on a number of occasions how he believes that news is just another branch of the entertainment industry.

Perhaps he finds that depressing. Perhaps he’s gone along with it because he thinks it’s inevitable. Perhaps he thinks that’s just the way the world works now: the best story wins.

To me that’s the larger crime. It’s a declaration that truth is now just the trellis upon which you grow your stories, until—that is—they reach such a point where they’re capable of supporting themselves.

Sincerity and craftsmanship

What I do for a living is try and work out the shape of the near future. I do that by looking at the technologies that are emerging and I try and combine that information with a sense of the kinds of things that normal human beings want to do or find fun or are useful. From these combinations come products. Some of those products get made. Some of those products are better than others.

The thing I’m trying to find, and which exists for all good products, is what I call the ‘hard nub’ in the middle of the idea. The ‘hard nub’ is the coresolid‘true’ thing about the product. It’s the bit that expresses what it’s for, and can normally be expressed to someone relatively simply.

Finding the nub is far from an easy process though. You really have to dig into how people operate, what they care about and when you’ve found the nub, you’re still only a hundredth of the way through the process of trying to find a way to express that truth honestly and clearly.

One of the reasons I love the technology industry is that—for all the crap that goes on around in the media and Techcrunch and all the blogs and the gossip stuff, and for all the bloody corporate speak crap that actively works to mine all potential meaning from language in order to avoid any potential liability—at its heart, there really are people with a passionate belief in trying to build interesting and useful new things. They believe in quality. They believe still in progress. They love making stuff.

When a product manufacturer cuts through all superfluous style and decoration and brings out the heart of a product, you guys know it. You can feel it. And when they do we love their products as a result. They just feel right.

They feel solid, real, functional and beautiful. The beauty is a result of function perfectly expressed. Without the function the beauty would be fake. And the function would be useless or buried, without the simple expression.

The New Sincerity

So what is the New Sincerity? It’s a belief and commitment to truth. It’s arguing for truth, not aggressively as a weapon, but in order to illuminate. It’s thinking critically. It’s being fair. It’s being open to having our own ideas questioned and to incorporate what we learn into our world view. And it’s holding public figures and journalists to the same standards. It’s about attempting to abandon ironic detachment and embarrassment and embracing the world for what it is. But most importantly, it’s about abandoning the idea that the truth is something bendable, flexible, relative, unreal.

Truth is not something that everyone has their own particular special equally appropriate version of. It’s much more than that.

It’s one very real, beautiful thing, unfathomable in scope, unknowable in its totality, revealed in part by the combination of our billions of perspectives and by the employment of our minds. It’s one thing with a beauty and wonder that we all deserve access to, and which enriches all of us. It’s the keystone of our civilisation and there is nothing more important.

And I mean that sincerely.

This piece was first delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco. There is a video available from the event. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before or since and I have no idea whatsoever how good it is.

Health Life

On Falling Over…

In 2008 I moved to the US and within six months I’d paralysed my left arm doing something stupid in the office. For a while I didn’t know if it was ever going to recover. It was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life and it happened in the most trivial of ways.

I first published this piece on Medium in August 2012 and only moved it over to in March 2013. If you’re interested in seeing it in its original context you can do so here: On Falling Over.

I’d moved over from the UK with some trepidation. I’d always wanted to spend some time living in America—I’d spent so much of my time online with SF natives in the nineties—but the mechanism I’d found to make the move was less than perfect. I’d found myself in a job that was relatively well-protected but working in an organisation that I couldn’t stand. I’d had some other—in retrospect rather better—opportunities, but I’d turned them down for a solid prospect. And then I’d delayed the move several times because of the scale of the commitment and my feelings towards it.

I’d have to work at this company for at least another two years in the US (potentially a lot longer), and I had absolutely no idea what the job would be like once I got here. It felt like the most grown-up thing I’d ever done. I was committing to do something I thought I’d hate, purely to be in the right situation a few years down the line.

Once I arrived though, things picked up pretty much immediately. The area I was working in was good and I got quite a lot of agency to improve and refine it. Within a few months, I was having a great time – working with clever, fun people in a familial, creative environment and on stuff that seemed actually important and interesting. I’d be working myself to death, of course – so much that I’d still not managed to get out of the corporate housing that I’d been placed in when I arrived in the country. Sixteen hour days were not uncommon. But honestly, it didn’t seem to matter.

One of the benefits of our particular relaxed environment and distance from the mothership was that we could turn our space into anything we liked. We had sofas and weird screens and neon signs and loads of space. We let dogs and children come in and play around us. We had people giving talks over the other side of the office. There were finger dart battles.

And we had a Balance Board.

The board was the property of our lead engineer and he used it to practice for snow-boarding. Very gradually all the rest of us started to play with it too. We’d stand on it and trying to stay upright and laugh at each other’s clumsiness. I started off worse than anyone else—I’d never had much sense of my body—but gradually started to improve. I mucked around on it every day. In the end something was bound to go wrong.

Picture the scene – I’m standing next to the lead engineer, looking at his screen. We’re talking about an element of the product we’re working on. We’re probably making some ridiculous joke or something. And I’m balancing on the balance board. And I fall off.

Everyone comes around and laughs at me lying on the floor, but I’m not laughing. I can tell something is wrong, but I don’t know what. I feel a bit irritated because they’re all having fun at my expense and honestly I’m not very good at being embarrassed. A co-worker makes a dumb joke and I say something like, “I think there’s something wrong with my arm” and then she looks and her eyes widen quickly and she shrieks and runs off. My arm is at a funny angle coming right out of my shoulder and it’s moving … strangely … I can’t seem to control it properly. And it hurts. Although not as much as it maybe ought to…

Ten minutes later I’m in a friend’s car driving to the hospital. I feel incredibly strange. I’m scared out of my mind. I’m in pain, but again, not as much as I ought to be, but every time we hit a pothole in the car it feels like something inside my arm is sawing through my shoulder muscle. My arm hangs off me strangely. It’s not moving properly. I have to hold it in mid air with my other arm or it feels … bad … Really bad. In the back of my mind I’m wondering whether it’ll be fixable. I’m trying to work out if I’m being melodramatic. Does this kind of thing happen to people all the time? My friend is being calm in that way that only someone who has had two children can be. She knows it’s a big deal, she’s not pretending it isn’t, but she knows that panicking won’t help. She’s awesome.

We get to SF General. I’m clearly not freaked out enough, because it takes me about ten seconds to notice that all the junior doctors and orderlies and people who are working there are absolutely stunning. It takes me about another five seconds to realise that I don’t like SF General. There’s a wide-eyed woman handcuffed to a railing who screams ‘Rape!’ whenever a doctor comes near her. There are two men who are mostly naked, covered in red scratches and dust, moaning like zombies and reaching out for one another with dirty, bloody hands. A woman runs in as the doctors start cutting off my t-shirt shouting, “Do you have insurance?” over and over. She’s shouting at me like I don’t have other things on my mind right at this moment. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how this works. I have insurance in theory, but I haven’t looked into it at all since joining the company. I have no idea what one’s supposed to do. And also—by the way—my arm is hanging out of its socket…

I’m put in a strange position and my arm starts to feel incredibly bad and painful. They inject me with something, but I don’t feel the pinprick. I start talking to my friend. “This isn’t doing anything…” I say. “It’s rubbish.” Then a few seconds later… “Shit, It had been doing something. Shit. Give me some more!” I’m in a room covered in tiles with equipment around me. I’m losing track a bit of who is in the room with me and who isn’t. They give me something stronger—something wonderful—and I start making jokes. Brilliant jokes. I’m the wittiest man alive. Also I’m English and that counts for something with these people. I’m dimly aware that I shouldn’t flirt with any of the doctors. I can sort of see them talking to my friend in the corner.

Time passes and honestly I don’t remember them setting my arm, but they clearly did. And next thing I know I’m lying exhausted and only semi-aware of what’s going on in a corridor on a gurney. One of the dirty blood-covered men is being wheeled past me on another gurney. He reaches out for me as he passes. My friend blocks him. I close my eyes and hear his groaning zombie-noise pass me by.

I’m sent home in pretty good order. Their suspicion is that the shoulder has just been dislocated. Now it’s been put back in place everything will sort of return to normal. I mention that I don’t seem to be able to move it that much and they say that’s common and that it’ll get better in a few days. I go home and collapse.
And time passes. The next day my arm doesn’t hurt that much at all. I can’t move it very much. I’m not that concerned. But the day after, it’s still not moving. It’s a long holiday weekend, but I stay at home trying to get better. The Monday comes and I’m starting to freak out. I’ve tried to work out what’s going on. A few things seem to be working. I can clench my fist. My bicep works. But I can’t straighten my arm, I can’t lift it up. I can’t straighten my fingers at all. And the outside of my arm from my shoulder to my finger tips feels cold and dead. My left arm can only really do one useful thing. I can hold out my arm like I’m begging. That’s the limit of what is practical. My arm has been replaced by a cup-holder.

Over the next few weeks I learn what’s going on. The brachial nerve in my shoulder has been ‘damaged’. No one knows how much. It could be bruised. It could be severed. If it’s bruised it will recover, at the rate of about a millimeter a week. If it has been severed, then it won’t recover at all. I’ll be stuck with a barely functioning arm for the rest of my life.

I visit a shoulder therapist who tries to calm me down about the whole thing. He’s a tall, tanned middle-aged man who looks like he surfs. He’s relatively positive, but says it’ll be a long wait to find out if I’ll heal. I want to know what happens if I don’t heal, but he doesn’t want to tell me. I have to force him to go into detail. He talks of opening up my arm and moving the muscles around so that they connect to the other side of my hand. He talks of fusing the bones in my wrist together so that my hand doesn’t flop down like a gay stereotype every time I move. He talks of braces and assistive devices. I sort of take some of it in. Knowing there are options—even weird cyborg, body-mutilating options—is weirdly comforting.

My friends try and help—some more than others. None of them really know what to do. None of them know how to react. They’re looking at me unclear as to how serious it is. At one level, I’m just a guy with his arm in a sling. At another level, I’m the guy whose arm doesn’t work and may never work again. They very graciously offer to help.

Very gradually a kind of black humour dredges itself across me, as I start to think about what my life could be like. You believe that you treat people with significant problems like this normally, but your illusions go away pretty quickly when you’re in the situation yourself. As the muscle starts to waste away on your arm, you start wondering what you’ll look like with one flaccid, scrawny arm, clawing upon itself. You wonder if you’ll be able to drive a car or ride a bike. What if you fall over on it? Would you be able to feel if you’d damaged it more? Will you be stuck looking after your arm like you would an insensate vegetative child?

How are you going to type? How are you going to do the work you’ve been doing for years? Within a few weeks I get my typing up to forty five words a minute one-handed. Everyone is very impressed, but what do they know? It’s half the speed I could type before. Am I going to be half as productive? My mother calls me and starts talking about assistive devices. Should I get a chording keyboard? It all feels like preparing for a life without a functioning arm. That’s not a view of the future that I’m capable of dealing with. I’m not able to think like that. It makes me angry that anyone would think that I should think like that. I will not think like that.

I find myself doing things in my home that I’d been meaning to do for years but never got around to, purely because doing them one-handed is borderline impossible. I refuse help from people. They mean well but they don’t understand. If I start taking people’s help now, then it’s accepting that I’m a broken person. It’s accepting that I’ll need some kind of assistance for the rest of my life. That I’ll always be dependent on other people. Fuck that. Fuck it so hard. I move every piece of furniture in my house. I rip up the carpet. I fold it up and drag it out into the shed. I’m swearing every step of the way. It’s a war between me and the carpet. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It takes me four hours. At the end I’m victorious. I feel strong and angry and determined and relentless.

I don’t take a single day off work from the moment the fall happened. In retrospect this was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done.

I wonder about sex. I wonder whether anyone would want to have sex with someone with a gimpy arm. I wonder whether or not I’d want to have sex with someone who wanted to have sex with someone with a gimpy arm. I try and imagine the mechanics. I visualize the look on their face as we go through the motions. I have fairly dark patches.

I go and see a neurologist who inserts long needles into my arms and asks me if I feel anything. He runs current through my body. He’s not impressed by the results. He tells me there’s a fifty percent chance of me getting something back, but that’s all. I leave composed and balanced. Sitting on a chair outside the surgery, I feel myself falling. I get a phone call from my boss. It’s the worst possible time and the poor man gets an earful of quite un-British set of emotion. I walk around for a bit. When I get back to the office, no one knows about my blip.

Months pass, and I start physiotherapy with two guys. One of whom is incredibly athletic and looks at me as if the arm is the least of my problems. Apparently working eighteen hour days and not getting any exercise is a bad thing. The other guy spends every minute manipulating my arm and asking about how to set up a tech start-up in San Francisco. I humour him. I wish he’d shut up.

I get an exciting new device that runs an electrical stimulus through my arm. When it’s on, every muscle clenches. All the muscles I can’t control. My fingers splay out like a maniac. It hurts a lot but it’s a pleasing kind of pain. It feels like I have some control over opening my fingers for the first time in months. I’m supposed to hold my arm out, trigger the device, watch my hand lift up and then turn off the device and try and keep my hand in the air. Every time I turn it off it flops down like a dead fish. Every time I’m a little more disappointed.

Friends are fascinated by this device. It gives them insight into how their bodies work; that you can route around the nervous system so easily. They sometimes want to try it on themselves. I’m eager to show them how it works. Partly that’s because I want them to understand the process, but there’s a part of me that also wants to hurt them for having working limbs. It’s not a feeling I’m proud of.

No one knows what to say, and I don’t know how to help them. After a while I start to wish they’d just pretend not to notice it. The following is the standard conversation that people had with me, borderline unedited:

“So what happened to your arm?”
“It doesn’t work”
“How did you do that?
“I fell over. I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Oh well, I’m sure it’ll be better soon.”
“Well, actually, no. It’s paralysed and may never get better.”
“Are you right-handed?”
“Ha! Well at least you can still masturbate, amiright?”

I have this conversation fifty times or more. I start to want to hide from people rather than have the conversation. I can sense when it’s about to start and try and steer the discussion in a different direction. It never works. I start to avoid talking to new people because I know they’ll do it. Every new time I have to explain myself forces me to go through the whole process in my head again. Yes, that’s right. My arm doesn’t work. It may never work again. Yeah, it’s a big deal. Thanks so much for asking.

Other concerned people ask me questions and sound so upset by the answers that I find myself having to make them feel better.

After a while I find a new script to stop things spiraling out of my control – a better script, a script that scares people. A script that stops their homilies dead in their tracks.

“So what happened to your arm?”
“Horrific fisting accident.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Horrific fisting accident. I hurt myself fisting someone.”
“Holy shit.”
“This is nothing. You should see the other guy…”

That shuts them up.

Four months after I fell over, I started noticing that I could lift my left hand up a couple of millimeters. I didn’t want to get my hopes up – maybe I’d always been able to do that, but the swelling from the injury had just masked it. But then a week later, it was getting stronger. I could move it half an inch. And then stronger and stronger. A couple of months later, with regular physiotherapy, I had a fully functioning left arm again. It was weak, certainly and it took a long time before it felt the same as my right arm. And there are still moments where the joint hurts a bit. But every day throughout all of the healing, while working hard to make things better, I’d say to myself, “This is fine. If it never gets any better than this, I’ll still be grateful.”

Today it’s back to normal, and it’s so easy to forget how hard it was and how I felt during the process. During the time it happened, I never once wanted to go onto my blog and write up what was going on. It was too big, too hard, too upsetting. All it would be was spreading my black mood around the internet.

The first thing I learned when this happened to me was the difference between something that will heal and something that may not. People break their arms every day. They know it’ll get better. They’re in pain and sad and limited, but they’ll almost certainly get better. So they can take help, lean on their friends and family. Accept a short burst of incapacity, then get back to normal.

But if it might not heal—if it’s something that you could have to live with for forty or fifty or sixty years—then it’s very different. We don’t tend to think about disease or illness in that way. We have very few mental tools to help us understand that kind of shift of life-expectations – that deformation of your future. You may not get better. You may not heal. You may be like this forever. Are you going to be a burden to everyone around you? Are people going to treat you like a child or look at you with ‘profound sympathy’ until the day you drop dead? Are you always going to be unable to carry your own weight? Are you always going to rely on others?

People always say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…”, but I’ve come to ruefully add in my head every time I hear that, unless it maims you. Unless it maims you.

So I’ve got a newfound respect for all the people who have had these experiences. My experience was thankfully brief but I feel I have a little more understanding of what it means to fall over and feel that you have to get up, no matter what you have to leave behind in the process. No one wants to have their independence and sense of self diminished by some trivial and stupid accident. I now understand a little more the absolute determination of people who live with a condition that won’t go away – the guts it takes to get through fear and self-doubt and the need to demonstrate that you’re not a wasted person, a mutilation, a wreck. Looking that battle in the face, however briefly, made me admire people who fight through it every day all the more. They don’t need our sympathy. They need our admiration and our respect. My arm healed. I was lucky. Many other people are not.

I have no moral from this story. I wish I could say it changed my life dramatically, or that I brought something back from the abyss that I can share and we can all learn from. But really, all I have is that you should appreciate what you’ve got. Very few people whose bodies get broken were injured rescuing children from ships or fighting against dangerous psychopaths. Most accidents are in the home or in a car, doing something normal and stupid. Falling from a ladder. Tripping on a curb. Trivial, embarrassing things. And they can happen at any time. There’s little you can do to avoid all risk in life, and it would be a pretty dull life if you did. So just be careful. Be decent. Be nice to each other. Because it could happen to you.

Update: I’ve received a number of comments from people about this piece who have said that it’s given them some extra perspective or helped them through tricky situations, and obviously that makes me feel quite good. However, I’ve also had a couple of people who have experienced much worse situations respond to it very badly indeed. Absolutely the last thing I would ever want would be to piss these people off – my goal, if anything, was to try and share with able-bodied people some small amount of the change in perspective I went through. Nonetheless, I’ve pissed them off, and I have to accept that. Rather than change my piece above, I’ve decided to link instead to this response: Alexander Williams on Google Plus. It’s far from flattering about me, but if you want a different perspective, there it is.


My last day at Yahoo!

After over four years, spread over several teams and two continents, today will be my last day at Yahoo!

It’s been a pretty extraordinary ride, all things considered. I came into the company at the same time as a whole bunch of extraordinary people, a number of whom I’ve had the honour of working with at some time or another. I’ve met a whole bunch of brilliant, new, amazing people through the company – far too many in fact to list with any degree of comprehensiveness.

I’ve moved halfway across the planet to San Francisco and made a new life for myself, delivered talks on multiple continents, worked on and launched projects and done work that I consider the very best of my career, some in public and much behind the scenes. I’ve got a green card. I’ve filed a few patents with some brilliant people. I’ve seen the absolute best of Yahoo! and a fair amount of its worst. I’ve had some amazing highs and some significant lows. And–with the exception of falling over last year and paralysing my left arm for six months, which I could have done without–I don’t regret a moment of it.

There really is too much to talk about, but there are a few projects in particular that stick in my memory – projects that I’m proud to have been a part of.

The Yahoo! Hack Day programme was started by Chad Dickerson in 2006. He’d started off running them internally – twenty-four hour periods where creative designers and engineers could build and show off new features, technologies and projects to their peers using Yahoo!’s technology. Towards the end of 2006 he’d decided to take it to the next level and put together an amazing Open Hack Day at the Sunnyvale Campus for the general public. The event was an amazing success, loads of people came and produced some amazing stuff. He even managed to get Beck to come and play for everyone.

So when Matt McAlister started talking to me about doing an event like it in London, it sounded like a great idea. And after talking to old colleagues at the BBC, it started to look like a joint event between the two organisations might be even better. But the event really started to come together when Matthew Cashmore from the BBC and Yahoo!’s Anil Patel and Elaine Pearce got involved. Matthew Cashmore really was a force of nature, pushing us continually think bigger and grander and the event genuinely would not have happened without him. He was extraordinary. In fact he’s the main reason, we ended up at Alexandra Palace

The Hack Day event, which some of you will remember was so awesome that it got struck by lightning represented everything I think is great about our industry – a collaborative, creative, imaginative, productive event, full of passionate, optimistic people. And it would never have happened without all the great volunteers from both Yahoo! and the BBC.

Another project that I think sums up some of these qualities was Brickhouse – a new product development arm that Caterina brought into being at Yahoo in 2007. I was brought over to the US to act as Head of Product for the team, and the following year was one of the most productive and creative of my life. There’s a truism that consolidating your creative work into ‘external innovation units’ is a bad idea, and I tend to agree with that. But Brickhouse wasn’t about consolidating innovation into one part of the company, it was about adding another string to the company’s bow – it was about supplementing the creative work going on around the rest of the company with small (sometimes tiny) groups of creative people developing and launching new ideas that simply wouldn’t get developed elsewhere.

Obviously, not everything about Brickhouse was perfect, but even if I look back just at the things we got out the door in that year, I remain proud of work that was never less than prescient and interesting. Among (much) other work in development, we launched innovative platforms for achievements online, services to open up live broadcast to anyone, open platforms for sharing your location – all ideas to this day I’m quite comfortable standing behind.

It would take too long to list everyone who worked at, passed through, or helped out projects at Brickhouse–and I’d be bound to forget someone in the process–so instead I’m just going to mention (again) what a pleasure it was to work with Salim Ismail, Chad Dickerson and Mike Folgner. I hope I get to work with all of them again at some point.

The last project I want to talk about is Fire Eagle. When I first joined Yahoo! in 2005, Simon Willison and I wrote a list of some areas we thought could be really fascinating to work on, and which could be a really huge deal over the coming years. We’d become really interested in location and had come to the conclusion that every website on the planet could be enhanced in some way if you could add some element of location.

We didn’t work on that idea immediately, but it stuck with us, and a couple of years later we started playing with it more seriously with Paul Hammond and a small team at Yahoo Research Berkeley (whose work had initially inspired us). One thing lead to another, we brought the project into Brickhouse and launched it late in 2008.

I’m incredibly proud of Fire Eagle. The idea was early, perhaps, but clearly in the right direction. We could see location on the near horizon as a really big idea and we could also see some of the problems and worries it might cause. We spent an incredible amount of time thinking about the privacy implications of users sharing their locations. Many other services see privacy as a problem and attempt to gloss over it for their users. We thought of it as an opportunity and made the privacy features the core part of the project. Users could choose where to share, how much to share, hide themselves and change or retract their permissions at any time. I think we progressed the state of the art in that area. Someone once referred to Fire Eagle as the Pixies of the latest batch of Location Services, and if that’s at all true, it may be the biggest compliment I’ve ever received.

But yet again, the most important thing for me with Fire Eagle was the people I got to work with. If I had to say one thing to those who wonder how to make their companies more creative, it would be to hire amazing people. Amazing people are so much more important than ideas, because amazing people are idea factories. And when you find teams of people who can generate good ideas, enjoy working together and are also experts in their craft–and your work is just to support them, help them focus and get problems out of their way–then honestly, you can’t fail.

So I want to personally thank Seth Fitzsimmons, Samantha Tripodi, Jeannie Yang, Chris Martin, Ben Ward, Kevin Ryan, Phil Pearson, Rabble, Arnab Nandi, Simon King, Mor Naaman, Ayman Shamma and everyone else who worked on Fire Eagle at any point in its life. I learned an enormous amount from all of you.

Over the last year, I’ve been working to take some of the ideas that lie behind Fire Eagle and apply them more widely across Yahoo! by looking after the company’s User Location platforms. There’s not a lot more I can say about that at the moment, but I’m sure that you’ll see some of the stuff we’ve been working on over the coming months and years.

So what’s next? Firstly I’m taking a bit of a break. I’m going to be spending the next couple of months relaxing and visiting my friends and family in the UK. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to digest the last few years a bit and maybe do a bit more writing. And I’m already talking to a few people about some interesting new projects for later in the year. If you want to be one of those people, then feel free to contact me at tom [at] plasticbag [dot] org. It’s an exciting time to be stepping out into the industry. Wish me luck!

[Apologies to anyone who is having trouble posting comments. I think a server upgrade a while ago broke some stuff. I’ll try and sort it out once I’ve slept for a couple of days.]