Our brave new world

The Internet is wasted. What once was a wonderful commonwealth of enthusiasm and exploration has become an existential wasteland.

3 trends have spoiled it.

Social networks. Almost all interaction and sharing today is done through them. Their convenience is killer: they give us an audience. It quickly became the most effective way of digital interaction, because it was relevant from the very begining. Then came the optimisation phase. User engagement (call it user addiction) became the number one metric towards profitability. Someone realised that people tend to be attracted to content of a certain type. By someone I mean a machine learning algorithm. So fire off all those analytic servers, start profiling people and feed them with whatever the algorithm tells you. Soon you have engaged users by billions, market cap skyrockets, and you’ve turned a significant portion of human kind into sheeps. I shouldn’t have written social networks as the problematic trend, but algorithmically curated content. Be mindful what you eat. If what you eat is determined by an algorithm, you are giving up on something in the process. I guess that something is your soul, your daemon. This is our very own brave new world, conditioned and happy, but also fooled and useless.

Instant sharing. I once wrote around here that when you reduce friction, you increase frequency. When entry barriers lowered (vanished!) for anyone to share stuff online, two things happened. Internet was very quickly democratised; everyone, no matter their digital literacy, started contributing. Then, just as quickly, the signal to noise ratio collapsed. It became impossible to find the needle in the haystack. No worries, though, do you know who can help? Yes! The recommendation engine of YouTube! So, then again, this is an indirection to my point about algorithmically curated content. It is also a reflection on what happens when you give everyone a voice. Democratising is ethically laudable, but we must be aware that we are switching from one set of problems to another. As with everything in life, it all goes down to choosing what type of problems you prefer, and I must admit I miss the days in which this was a gathering on nerds clumsily crafting websites. Some things are better if they just take effort. That effort acts as a filter that at least guarantees that what gets done, at least, shows commitment, perseverance and enthusiasm of the maker.

Timebound publishing. I like and don’t like timelines. When someone came up with the idea of blogging, it immediately rooted. If you were around before, you’d have noticed that we built ugly websites with some navigation in the left by topic and mostly static content. Someone then thought that it’d be good to journal the entries. And it was good because up there, right when you open up the site, the most recent content always shows first. That is convenient, both for the producer of content and for the reader, so it quickly became the de facto standard. It was obviously endorsed by social media when they were born… twitter will show last tweets first, same with facebook, instagram, etc. It’s simply better… but it also has some drawbacks. It puts an emphasis on new, and new is not necessarily more relevant. I know it’s ironic to make this point from a blog, but I myself suffer from this. You may have noticed by now that I make an effort to write with very few reference to time sensitive content. I mostly try to reflect on stuff that is timeless. Then sometimes I point someone to this blog and realise that, perhaps, my last post is not really representative. Time is not really relevant for what I write. I acknowledge this is useful for habitual readers, but again, this convenience comes at a cost: we get fed by new, not by better, and time buries the most powerful ideas into the oblivion of the vertical scroll.

All in all, my feeling is that all these trends have turned the Internet into one big shopping mall full of indistinguishable clothing franchises. The internet is full of people on a Saturday evening, buying the same stuff, getting excited by the last trend, a trend that some big corporation deducted by running analytics on the last purchasing behaviour of the masses. This is our brave new world. We must reclaim our soul, also in the digital space; we must restore our digital souls, run away to the digital villages, to the digital libraries and to the digital bars. We will have to find them, though. We may have to build them.

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Enough with the WHAT and HOW!

WHAT: Increase profit by 10%
HOW: Increasing penetration on wealthy individuals.

WHAT: Increase penetration of wealthy individuals.
HOW: Improving retention by 20% and capturing 20 new clients per week.

WHAT: Improve retention of wealthy individuals by 20%.
HOW: Addressing most common complaints of the product.

WHAT: Address most common complaints of the product.
HOW: Identifying first what those common complaints are.

WHAT: Identify most common complaints of wealthy individuals.
HOW: Grouping complaints into types, then counting.

WHAT: Group complaints into types.
HOW: Extracting complaints and get operations to identify similar issues.

WHAT: Extract complaints.
HOW: Sending the querying parameters to the IT team.

See what I mean? Your HOW is my WHAT, that demands a HOW, which is someone else’s WHAT, and so on... Talking about WHAT and HOW does not make any sense if we don’t have a common framework of reference. This fractal structure creates communication issues:

  • If two people work at different abstraction layers, something gets lost and problems arise. We get lost in translation because we speak different languages. You just want an app to make room reservations (WHAT) but I need a lot of details to make it happen (HOW). You believe it is my job to come up with those details, but I believe it is your job to tell me. We work at different layers. If nobody bridges this, bad things happen.
  • If the guy specifying the WHAT gets deep into the HOW he’s micromanaging and killing the team’s initiative. I want an app to make room reservations; by the way, we should build it in SWIFT 4, and make sure to use the new Core Animation framework. Also, create a common Git repository and make sure every team member writes the comments on its source code with 3 asterisks before. If he stays way too high in the stack, he turns into captain obvious and adds zero value. In order to increase profit we must grow our revenue and be more efficient; bring me initiatives.
  • Like in the previous case, you add zero value when you simply make efforts to be exhaustive. That way, you are simply passing down the chain the task to really come up with a HOW.
  • Best results are achieved when the WHAT guy speaks the HOW guy language, or when the HOW guy speaks the WHAT guy language.
  • In general, the person that speaks more languages across the stack adds more value and tends to lead, no matter where she sits in the stack. So forget the idea that the WHAT guy leads.

The problem with abstraction layers is one of the most common sources of misunderstanding, inefficiency and frustration that I see. If only anything could be modelled with an OSI stack!! The OSI model renders to me the same beauty and elegance of the greatest painting or buildings in history. It encapsulates a chain of WHATs and HOWs that work in perfect sync and move from how light propagates in an optical fiber cable, all the way up to snapping a picture and having it sync across you phone, tablet and computer. Everything that happens in between is there, in the OSI model, perfectly orchestrated.

Is life more or less interesting due to the fact that people cannot be API-fied? While this sounds nerdy and weird enough, someone is already advocating for encapsulating people in well defined services and managing them as you would manage your twitter API. This is what happens when you let technocracy camp without limits.

No to worry, though, as one thing we can be sure of…

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My-opia

Hey! Long time no speak! It’s interesting how things work… the moment I stopped writing, something else filled that space. Then, in my mind, some switch told me, week after week, that there was something more urgent than writing this post. Which is true, by the way. But it is also true that there is always something more urgent than taking a shower in the morning, or eating, and that doesn’t stop you from doing them, or does it?

I have a terrible brain myopia condition (the incapacity to focus on anything but the urgent and close.) Yes, everybody has this, I know, but my condition is extreme. Let me confess something: most days, I forget to go to the bathroom during work hours. That means I arrive at 9:30am, leave work at 9:00pm, and in my way back home I realize my bladder is about to explode. This is a result of jumping from meeting to meeting, meetings that run over, I’m late to the next, a phone call I cannot take and have to return, an email I’ve scanned in the middle of a meeting and need to reply… during 11 or 12 hours there’s a non-stop sequence of urgencies. I never stop, never breathe… never pee.

I worry that brain myopia will kill me in the medium term. I can only imagine that it will result in some sort of prostate issue, severe nervous condition, or brain lymphoma like my father. Besides, I don’t exercise in any form due to my brain myopia (exercising is not urgent.) Brain myopia doesn’t help with my relationships either, it’s never really urgent to enjoy a good time with your wife, right?

I used to wake up early in the morning to work on my projects, write, do what I want. It was my only non-urgent moment. Well, I’ve pushed that a bit further and I now wake up at 5:30am… to work! It’s true that I went through a stretch but it is fascinating how urgencies, if you give them the space, they take it, hold to it, and never leave.

I’m pushing them out this morning, precisely to acknowledge my condition, and perhaps ask for help. I used to blame my work, but now I’m not sure. Certainly, if you suffer from asthma, working on a chemical plant won’t help. But I need to find the cure, the right strategies, the keys to step out of my condition. I’m ashamed to suffer from such a first-world, not-really-a-problem, there’s-people-who-travel-5km-for-water-and-you-complain-about-this-shit type of thing, but it is really taking a toll on me.

First thing is acknowledgement, I guess, but if you feel you’ve got something to help, don’t hesitate to shout!

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