Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2015

Let me take you back — the year was 2015. It was before The Event, a time when we still had hope in our hearts. In those days, things were either True or False, even if it was occasionally hard to figure out which category they fit in. Seldom were they both. Never were they neither. Such naïve days. Such strange days.

It was a time when our vision of the future looked more like the ‘after’ scenes in a home makeover show and less like the ‘after’ scenes in T2: Judgment Day.

I’m sure you remember, right? Right?

Me either. This is all a trick. I’m not Tom. I’m the future cockroach equivalent of Casey Kasem (NB. Dated Reference, Fix in Post) reconstructing this entire piece from fragments found in an old Apple Music datacenter. I plan to send it back through my timeline to warn of the Oft-Coming Stürm. But until then, and should I fail in my mission, long live the Blattodean Survivors of the Great Karmic Trumpocalypse!

Anyway, I’ve done this before — at the end of 2015 I wrote about the songs of 2014 and at the end of 2014 I wrote about the songs of 2013. There’s (some) method to my madness — increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. This whole ‘One Year Later Review’ is a half-hearted attempt to get people to remember that. And since ‘End of Year’ lists in music are almost the worst possible of non-political hot takes (the year hasn’t even bloody finished for God’s sake) and are no longer valuable in working out what music to get your Gran to buy you for Christmas, it seems reasonable to pause for a second and wait just long enough to get a sense of what songs actually stick with you and what you thought of them. So with no further ado…

Hot Chip: Huarache Lights

This year’s award for most ‘Compulsively Energising Song that Helps Me Get Out of the House and Feel Dynamic in the Mornings’ was hard-fought but in the end goes to the exemplary Huarache Lights by Hot Chip. I’m not 100% sure what it is about this track that works so well for me, but—from the first moment I heard it—it found a place in my head that it resolutely refuses to leave. It’s like that guest at a party that won’t leave when you want to go to bed, except the guest is awesome and they’re also quite hot and they seem to like you and also they have all these great stories about cool people they say they can introduce you to and… what’s that? They have a pet tiger who is also awesome? And a time machine? Wow. That’s actually super fucking great. This is such a fun evening. Maybe you shouldn’t go to bed after all.

There’s something hypnotic about this song, even hypnogogic at times — it creates a sort of dynamic pattern and then buggers around with it in a whole range of interesting ways before bringing them all together in a way that fits together super nicely. And the final mélange it generates is somehow psychopharmacologically active and puts you into a weird but thoroughly pleasant kind of Disco Trance. It’s got hints of all kinds of stuff in it. I even feel like there’s a thin slice of pungent Pet Shop Boys-flavoured cheese jammed in there somewhere. And yet when they come together it fuses into something that feels inevitable and right and bouncy and ridiculous and clever and witty and odd and fun.

Jai Wolf: Indian Summer

In recent years it feels like music from artists with Indian backgrounds or using Indian samples has finally discovered a way to push into whatever isolated little musical bubble I’m unknowingly trapped within, and honestly I couldn’t be happier. There’s such artful, joyous and elegant stuff being made in the overlaps between styles and cultures—such wonderful new opportunities for exploration and play—and Jai Wolf’s Indian Summer is among my absolute favorites. It has this wonderful euphoric sense to it and this deep love of noise. And at its heart there’s that beautiful sample that surfs the waves across the song before turning and spraying some cool, refreshing, salty endorphins across my hot, dry and welcoming brain. It’s just wonderful.

Beck: Dreams

The more I do these little musical recaps, the more I realise how predictable I am. Stick a bit of syncopation in a song, a jangly guitar riff, some over-processed 80s-style rock drums, and a bit in the song where it goes quiet for a minute and I’ll probably be happy. Make it go a bit wrong halfway through — maybe make all the rhythms or harmonies get a bit out of whack — and then build it all together again, and my eyes will roll back in my head with joy. Dreams isn’t a complex song. It’s not a song full of deep meaning. But it’s a perfect piece of craft that I listen to all the time. It’s a really fun, bouncy, enthusiastic, hook-laden, pop song and it makes me really happy.

Father John Misty: Bored in the USA

It’s not all joy and dancing at Chez Coates, much as my public persona might lead you to believe otherwise. I have dark periods of late-night worrying like any other barely human male. There’s only so much Purposeful and Passionate Striding Confidently into a New Future of Promise and Wonder that one guy can do before he needs to sit at home staring into space thinking about What He’s Done. And when I want to wallow in that bed-ridden feeling of 3am angst and stress—which for some reason, like most humans, I seem to want to do on a surprisingly regular basis—I turn to Father John Misty.

Bored in the USA is an almost startlingly apposite song for me, to the extent that when listening to it I occasionally feel the need to look around to see if he’s in a bush nearby watching me, carefully making notes in his tiny precise handwriting for his next song of early-middle-aged disappointment and frustration. It’s apposite to the point that you can almost ricochet off it as it lowers itself down to the darkest depths of a human’s own self-loathing. And then just when you think it’s all getting a bit too serious and dark, he sticks a laugh track in the song itself to remind you how absurd and petty and small your bleakness and wide-eyed moments of total abject terror actually are. I should want to punch him for this, but instead I want to buy him a drink. That he can carry off this trick is the reason this song is in this list.

NB. This is a cheat, because Bored in the USA actually came out at the very furthest arse-end of 2014. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once said a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and while I don’t agree with him, I’m assuming enough of you will to let me off the hook this once.

Kiiara: Gold

Probably my favourite song of 2015, ‘Gold’ is both one of the most popular and also one of the strangest. There’s almost nothing there. Thin synth base twonk noises poke out intermittantly around some kind of rhythmic ‘pop’ sound. Occasionally sparse electronic hi-hats appear so you know something exciting is happening. And in the foreground a woman sings about biting out other people’s fillings. The chorus feels like sliced bits of other songs arranged pseudo-randomly. And somewhere from all its sparseness, classiness and over-designed contrast, something quite extraordinary falls out. I can’t really describe it. You’ve probably heard it thousands of times. But if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.

Melanie Martinez: Soap

Somewhere in the last few years pop music got really bloody weird. I’m not complaining about this at all — it’s actually kind of amazing that there are people playing in pretty mainstream pop with sounds and structures that sound so extraordinarily different. There’s an experimental dynamism that blurs club and pop and art in what seems to me to be a new and interesting way. Is it actually new and interesting? I have no idea and wouldn’t be qualified to comment even if it were— I’m old and weird and my memory is failing me. But it seems pretty great. Let me give you an example. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you ‘Soap’:

If I had to describe this song and its associated video in one word, the word would probably be ‘batshit’. But if I had two words, the second would be ‘awesome’. Unfortunately for you poor bastards, I also have a whole range of other words at my disposal, so let me dig into what I think makes this such oddly compulsive listening.

It seems to be a song about baths and soap, except those things at various points are probably euphemisms or metaphors for something. But it’s not entirely clear what they’re metaphors for, and they seem to shift and move. And somehow this song about baths and soap and saying stupid things and being embarrassed is then merged in with a stripped-down club-style fist-in-the-air banger. And it doesn’t sound stupid. It sounds cool. And then for some reason they add in some tuned simulations of the noise of bubbles popping. And they don’t sound cool and should be embarrassingly awful. And they are embarrassingly awful. And yet it doesn’t matter. The whole thing should be a novelty record and yet somehow it holds together and when taken as some kind of auditory speedball becomes something more than you’d expect from its various parts. And the more times you listen to it, the more its oddness worms its way into your brain. I don’t understand it, I’m not sure why it exists or what it’s trying to communicate. But I like it. I like it a hell of a lot.

Gunship: Tech Noir

If I had to pick out a couple of trends from my musical selections this year it would be a tendency for contemporary music to border on parody and yet still work, and also the solid straight-down-the-line weirdness of contemporary pop.

Tech Noir is a song by a band by Gunship. It is named after the club in Terminator where Arnie comes for SAAAAH COH-NA, whips out a sawn-off shotgun and blows everyone to hell. And the video is about a man watching a movie on VHS who transports himself into an eighties movie to become claymation. And the music itself is in many ways an experimental hybridization of a ridiculous number of eighties auditory clichés.

But the song is actually really beautiful. It lives in that post-M83 space of artists exploring and reappropriating the 8os, from synth sounds to fake hand-claps. But through this oddly cold and computerized space snakes this beautiful lyric and rich emotive and expressive chorus. As someone who spent most of his teenage years trapped in the 1980s, I often find myself puzzled by why anyone would want to feel nostalgia for it, or think of it as a period worth mining for creative ideas. Not being weird, but it basically sucked. But maybe if the 80s had been more like this, I’d feel differently?

Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ: Lean On

I don’t know about you, but when I see a bunch of white people dressed up like Indian people doing Indian-style dancing surrounded by Indian people in India to promote a pop song, it doesn’t 100% feel right. There’s something uncomfortably appropriative about it in a way that having an Indian artist play in the overlap between cultures doesn’t. Still, a tacky video does not make a tacky song, and MØ, DJ Snake and Major Lazer between them made something fascinating in Lean On.

Y.A.C.H.T: L.A. Plays Itself

Last year and the year before I talked about how irritating I find it when artists write songs about technology. This is because they almost always seem to come at it from the perspective of ‘technology is somehow diminishing us all while only art nourishes and enriches us as individuals’, which seems both oddly (and obviously) self-serving and often highly ironic given how much tech these artists use in the creation of their songs, their videos, and in the crafting of their public personae.

In 2013 for example it was Arcade Fire complaining about how social media didn’t actually connect you to other people in Reflektor. You can follow Arcade Fire on Twitter here: Arcade Fire on Twitter. In 2014 it was St Vincent complaining about how annoying it is that people keep making videos to get famous and how they only feel validated when they’re on the internet. You can follow her stylishly created and ostentatiously ‘look at me’ videos on the Internet on YouTube here: St Vincent on YouTube. I’m just saying.

But there is (I believe) at least one band that explores the weirdness and power and threats of modern technology well in their songs without sounding absurd. And that band is Y.A.C.H.T.

Now I’m biased in favour of Y.A.C.H.T. generally because at one point this year I was lucky enough to be backstage one of their gigs in San Francisco. A lovely old friend who knows them well took me to meet the band. It was super fun. I yammered on trying to sound interesting for a while while they got ready to perform. We actually had a really interesting conversation about the good and bad bits of tech and tech culture and what it means for the wider world. They were almost certainly humoring me but I really don’t care. They were really ridiculously super nice and friendly and I had a very nice time.

They also produced a great song this year about tech which I’d love to include in this list. It’s called “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” and it’s definitely worth your time.

Unfortunately though, they also did another song, called LA Plays Itself and it is better! And it is more fun. And it’s proper pop disco in a slightly unfashionable but oddly awesome way. And here it is…

Max Richter: Sleep

My second-to-last selection isn’t exactly a song. It isn’t even exactly an album. It’s eight hours of music under the name ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter.

This is a strange one, but it has had such an impact on me since it came out that I couldn’t ignore it. I think it’s truly exceptional and fascinating and totally involving and that you should all go and buy it immediately. You don’t want to buy the short truncated hour-long one. That’s bullshit. You have to commit. You want the full $35 eight hour long epic. Don’t wuss out. It’s amazing.

The premise is in itself extraordinary. Richter’s epic is music that is designed to be played when you are falling asleep, and then to provide background music to you while you sleep and dream, and while you slowly rouse yourself in the morning into a new day. It’s supposed to follow the natural rhythms of a normal night’s sleep and for each piece to complement a different part of the sleep cycle. It’s a bizarre idea — music you won’t hear in any conscious state, but music that could permeate your subconscious, influence your dreams and your thoughts and is designed to carry you through the night in a beautiful, backgrounded way.

Such an idea conjures in the mind terrible self-hypnosis tapes and some kind of hackneyed tape-based collection of whale song, but this isn’t ambient noise or new age hand-waving.

Each piece is long, melodic, artfully and beautifully played and recorded, and arcs and repeats itself, with simple themes on the piano and violin (and other instruments and voices) emerging and falling away. Structure appears and then collapses into the background again. Melodies surface and then sink deep only to return four or five hours later. And it’s all done so slowly and smoothly. I’ve put it on many nights to help me sleep — I find it immediately calming and relaxing—and later found myself half awake in the middle of the night letting some new piece of beauty arc and cascade around me, feeling new melodies drift across my mind like clouds across the moon. I’ve listened to it while working or when stressed and found its simplicity beautiful and calming and centering.

If you come to it impatient, unwilling to let it drift around you and take you away, it will do nothing for you. But if you go with it, you may find it becomes one of the most important and life-affirming pieces of music you’ve ever lived with.

David Bowie: ★

Finally, I want to leave you with the most important song of the year for me. And unfortunately—just as 2015 turned into 2016—this is where my cheerful mood and mischief stops dead in its tracks. Please bear with me.

I’ve been a deep Bowie fan for the majority of my life. I came to him a little later than many of my generation but once I’d found him I consumed him whole and completely. This bizarre, queer, straight, apocalyptic, danceable, questioning, literate, bizarre eccentric crafting these bizarre and beautiful little mind castles you could live in for a while — he was fascinating. And songs with such rhythms! Such bizarre harmonies! And just a little bit of joyfully embraced menace… Good god, I loved it.

For me it all started with Hunky Dory, picked up on CD at an Our Price in the UK sometime in the late eighties. It’s an album from the year of my birth that still feels like it defined much of the music of the next fifty years. Here it was all laid out before you right from the beginning. And it continued through Starman — beautiful hymn to escape and magic—through The Man Who Stole The World and Heroes and Ashes to Ashes and Let’s Dance and… I could go on indefinitely.

Of all of his albums in the end it was Station to Station that has stayed with me the longest. It’s such a dense, complicated, confusing record. It took me so long to get my head around it. Perhaps one of the reasons it still fascinates me so much is because there are still bits of it that surprise me and weird me out.

But despite loving so much of his work even in the late eighties I knew that all of his creative best had come and gone before I’d really discovered him. And then—late in November of 2015—something really odd happened. Bowie sprang back into the spotlight as if he’d never left, and released (from some previously untapped reservoir within him) a ten minute bizarre musical epic. Odd beats, saxophones and three complex, interwoven major musical themes cavorted around an incredibly stylish and bizarre video featuring bible thumpers, twitching dancers and blinded singers with buttons for eyes.

For the first time in decades, Bowie was absolutely and totally pushing the future forward, making something so fascinating and unusual and interesting that it felt like the world turned towards it. Generations of Bowie fans felt a reignition of a passion and excitement within them — a new album, a creative renaissance, and we might get to be there to enjoy Bowie at his best again. It felt absolutely extraordinary.

Six weeks later, as the rough beast of 2016 finally dragged its shit-filled carcass into the world, he would be dead.

That’s it for now. Join me again next year at the One Year Later Review for the songs of 2016, where most likely I will talk at length about Beyoncé.

Humour Illustration Politics

Alt-Right, the Comic Strip

This was originally posted over on Medium and a copy of it was moved over here for consolidation purposes in May 2020.

Online last night I saw a bunch of people accusing the left of being bigots for protesting against racist and sexist rhetoric. The argument appears to be that the left are hypocrites for not respecting the freedom of expression of racist, sexist and discriminatory people to be racist, to be sexist, and to discriminate.

At its heart there is a tension here and it’s a tension as old as political theory —that all people should have as much freedom as possible but without compromising the freedom of others. But it’s a tension that we work out over time, in law and in practice. Fundamentally, most on the left have come to the conclusion that stopping people acting in racist, sexist or discriminatory ways results in far more good than harm — a feeling that those who experience sexist, discriminatory or racist abuse seem (for some reason) to feel even more strongly.

Anyway, I find the rhetoric on the alt-right about this stuff beyond offensive and awful — somehow equating threatening to take fundamental rights away from people with protesting about those rights being taken away. And I didn’t quite know how to express my frustration. And weirdly, the best I could come up with was a few short comic strips.

So here they are — five short strips which I think express the absurdity of the hypocrisy and contradiction in the alt-right position. Feel free to use them however you want (as long as you don’t edit the text in them). I’m releasing them under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives International License.

Donald Trump wants to register Muslim Citizens
Donald Trump and the birther myth
Donald Trump discusses grabbing women ‘by the pussy’
Not pretty enough to harass
False statements regarding Mexicans and crime
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.