Text from my 89plus Marathon speech at the Serpentine gallery, 19/10/13
Usually I make things with computers. On the rare times I stand on a stage it’ll be to show my work, with slides and a pitch, but I don’t really have any work to show you this evening. I don’t have a TED style neatly packaged ‘idea worth spreading’. I’ve been asked to come and share some thoughts based on my experiences as a young practitioner in today’s world, which I got quite excited about. I’ve got opinions, I reckon. But I’m not used to just standing here and articulating thoughts. So I’ve written them all down.
Also as it’s based on my experiences, I need to talk about some context, which I’m afraid means I have to talk about myself for a bit. I hope you understand it’s important for this talk and not just my vanity.
So that’s all the apologising out of the way.
I went to a London comprehensive, called Woodbridge High School. OFSTED reports had it hovering around ‘average’ among similar schools. That’s about 60% of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSE. Put frankly, the education was awful. I can list everything I leant from the curriculum in my time there: a little bit about the war poets from a teacher who was quickly seduced into the private education sector, some cold war history, and that using your year 8 speech to speak out against homophobia gets you beaten up. I looked forward to being a grown up, being my own boss, and playing with the real world.
I was incredibly fortunate. At the age of 13, from my comfortable bedroom I began to tinker with computers. I got interested in a new technology called Ruby on Rails, an opinionated framework for making interactive websites, around which more intelligent and experienced people openly discussed and shared best practices and code. I learnt along with them, and within a couple of years, it turned out that knowledge was very profitable. Working as a programmer enabled me to drop out of my A levels, sidestep the recession, the generational debt and the joblessness being handed to all of my peers and was able to work in whatever industry or company intrigued me. By the time I was 23, I had worked in Business Continuity, the Music industry, Media, Advertising and Design. It was like industrial tourism: a never ending series of internships, except I was valued and got paid, sometimes very well.
You might think the BBC news website article narrative here charts how a boy in his twenties taught himself to code, left school and founded a dynamic startup. It could have been an iPhone app that sold a few million copies, an industry disrupting platform for whatever, or (if I was feeling fluffy and socially conscience) a social innovation startup, perhaps enabling homeless people to become just like me, a self-reliant self-starting entrepreneur!
All very tempting, but these saccharin narratives of geek boy done good carry a political message that I’m not comfortable with. People are incredibly excited in and outside of tech and in the mainstream media about specific aspects of the tech world. They are fascinated by profits, newness and the political issues of data protection and surveillance. But beyond this there is a severe lack of debate about how the tech community participates in our socio economic context. Because for all the excitement around the new powers of technology, the tech community became one of the most powerful practitioners of the neo liberal agenda, with only some of us noticing.
If you look around the most hyped areas of the technology industry, at best you’ll see no mention of government, at worst an active interest in shrinking it. On the screen I’ve put together a super cut of a genre called ‘Design Fiction’. Typically, a creative agency somewhere gets a contract with a big technology company to show their future vision of the world, and how they fit in it. It’s like corporate sponsored science fiction. They are soulless worlds where healthy successful people go to work in empty offices, then go home to their shiny expansive but empty homes. Again, government isn’t mentioned.
But it’s not that I think all software developers are neo-liberals. In fact, it seems we’re working hard to not notice. A few months ago Bruce Sterling made a keynote address at NextWeb conference. It contained some harsh truths for the conference hall of eager entrepreneurs. I’ll quote a bit to give you an idea.
“In the startup world, you work hard and you move fast to make other people rich. Other people. You’re a small elite of very smart young people who are working hard for an even smaller elite of mostly baby boomer financiers. So they can buy national governments, shut the governments down, destroy the middle class and the nation state… That will be the judgement of history for your startup culture… It was a tacit allegiance between the hacker space favelas of the startups and offshored capital and tax avoidance money laundries. We’re all auto colonialised by the austerity”
There was basically no media coverage and the audience seemed to stare down at their phones, only laughing nervously at the most intense moments. On YouTube it’s currently only got 1,200 views, unlike these videos that get millions. This is the dominant narrative for the future. Why is this?
Many developers I speak to shy away from politics. They comfort themselves with ideas of our community being meritocratic, that the good guys will win out over partisan and agenda based politics because we are working towards a more logical, educated society. This is, of course, the same lie as the fully informed rational consumer of market liberalisation. They shrug when it’s pointed out that we’re nearly all white middle class men. The discussions around women in technology have only just started, and boy do they get defensive about it, and we haven’t even begun discussing class based privilege, so repellant is the idea of discussing something as political in our rational meritocratic nirvana. ‘Check your privilege’ is an idea that flies directly in the face of our self narratives of the underdog nerd proving himself with his intelligence and well meaning intentions.
Our generation is generally adverse to ideologies. I don’t have too much of a problem with this. I find that Ideologies often cause nothing but obstacles to those people who are actually getting things done. But as developers we are both close to the ground, and have real power. In his new short book “The new Kingmakers”, Stephen O’Grady very effectively makes the case that software developers are just that. It’s time we stopped making toys for quite rich people to make very rich people even richer.
So instead I’m currently working at the Ministry of Justice, and I’ve been encouraging everyone I know to join the public sector. Our numbers are growing. Currently, in the UK Cabinet Office, the Government Digital Service has one of the best digital teams in the country. And they’re succeeding. It started life as a tiny team in a disused floor of a government building in south London, building a prototype to prove that it could be done. The watching civil servants said ‘that’s nice work. but it’ll never go live’. They got funding to grow and build a beta, with real plans on replacing DirectGov. The watching civil servants said ‘that’s nice work. but it’ll never go live’. One year ago this week, DirectGov was turned off, and GOV.UK became the government’s home page. In April it won design of the year.
For reasons I won’t go in to, I found myself at a tory bar called ‘Maggies’ with the Tax Payers Alliance the next day. I got chatting with them about GOV.UK’s award. The amount of disgust expressed surprised me. In my sheltered world, I had never met anyone who had such a negative opinion. Intrigued, I spent the next half an hour trying to figure out why. I got a lot of emotions, but not a lot of sense. Words like “I don’t like it, I’m the customer so I’m right” were muttered, ignoring the huge amounts of user research, testing and iterative improvements that were made. They didn’t seem to care that it was proving we could save millions, if not billions of tax payers money.
I have a suspicion. I suspect that the idea of the public sector not only doing something well but better than most of the private sector offends them. Turns out the best way to piss off market libertarians is to make government work.
Sure, I hear moans from Silicon Roundabout that the government is sucking up all the best talent in London, but while they’re saying that, GOV.UK increased signups to the organ donations register by 10,000 every month with just a bit of clever A/B testing as a side project. I could be working on your socially network website that tries to convince parents that fruitshoot isn’t awful for their kids (I have actually done that), or I could be doing what I’m doing now, helping bring real change to the office of the public guardian so they can do their job better. They provide support for those caring for someone who has lost mental capacity, whilst checking that the carer isn’t abusing their position.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the software developer community. I love being a part of it and I’m constantly excited about what we are doing. But I’m also frustrated. We seemed to have been coerced into working for a future that we didn’t sign up for. But hopefully, as anger amongst my generation grows at the world that has been handed to us, maybe more of us will realise that they may have the money, but we have the tools of technology.
Those are some thoughts. As I mentioned I don’t have a neatly packaged up conclusion for you, but I hope they have been interesting.
Overview of my talk at 89plus at serpentine
James Darling goes for the jugular. Being a responsible consumer is not enough. James argues that the mainstream tech community has now become the most powerful community to promote neo-liberal agenda. Software developers are close to the ground, wield immense power, but they should focus on making government work, not shrinking it. Too many of them are shoring up a small elite of making maker toys for rich people and making them richer. We hold the tools of technology, but we are inadvertently justifying to ourselves for a future of capital intensification we didn’t ask for and don’t want. It’s an impassioned speech. We must be ready to compromise and not accept a sense of powerlessness. His position differs from both Nick and Leng in that he asserts technology is not inherently neutral – it concentrates power, facilitates social control, and effects (and often displaces) a huge number of people. Is it right to use a platform to sell soft drinks when you could be increasing organ donor registration? A powerful advocate of the public sector (he currently works for the Ministry of Justice), James forces us to ask ourselves – what kinds of technology are hurtful to the community? Whose interests does technology serve? And how do we reclaim our autonomy?
I believe a video will be available soon, and will link to it when it is.
The Ministry of Justice
As you may know, I recently left BERG. One of my ambitions in my new found contracting life was to play with big systems and organisations. I have yet to get my teeth properly into any company bigger than 30 people. Now felt like a good time.
I am now at the Ministry of Justice, where we are starting up a new Digital Services Division. Think of it as trying to set up a mini GDS, but for the MOJ rather than for the Cabinet Office.
What GDS have done has been one of the most inspiring things I have seen in my career. I have many friends there, and if BERG hadn’t been such a great place to work over those years, I would have been very annoyed I wasn’t a part of it. I feel like I have missed the GDS boat though. Although they still have so much interesting work to do, and perhaps their most exciting work is yet to come, I felt that it was perhaps a smidge too late for me to join now.
The new Ministry of Justice Digital Service Division is still only 15 people, and even in the few weeks I have been their, we have had new joiners every week. I’ve been particularly excited to have Gavin Bell and Relly AB join us, and also about other people who are not confirmed yet. We’re building a good team, and we need it!
We have a lot to do. There is so much technical and cultural change to be made, and we can do it. It’s by no means guaranteed we will succeed, and their will be challenges ahead, but this is what made the job so enticing for me.
We are bringing in this change by doing some pretty important projects. We have a full wall of them to work through, from making Lasting Power of Attorneys a much less painful experience (hopefully removing the reliance on lawyers in the process) to better managing prison visits. Millions of people from all walks of life rely on these services, often at very difficult times in their lives, and there is considerable improvement we can make to them.
I’m yabbering now, and you can see the point I’m getting to. We need some more brilliant webby people to join us on this mission. And I mean need. This is important. If this sounds interesting, then maybe grab me for a beer and I can tell you more.
Accessing rather than collecting our own personal data
We all know that personal data is valuable. That’s why we get free stuff when we fill out surveys, deductions when we use clubcards and why facebook is free. Some happily have wallets full of loyalty cards and doormats littered with vouchers. Others worry and try and hide themselves, usually quite unsuccessfully.
At the same time, a far smaller but growing group of people are interested in gathering their own personal data. We (for I am among them) scrobble, geotag and photograph as much as we can convince ourselves is worthwhile. We then gamify and schedule notifications to convince ourselves to go even further. We have a suspicion that one day we will be able create something even nicer than an old gig poster or portrait to hang up on our walls with all this data.
It seems like I’m after exactly the same things that the marketers are after. Is there a way of making strange bed fellows of us?
There are two ways I can think of doing this. The first is to convince the data collectors to open up willingly. This is possible, but requires greater political tact than I possess.
The other is to go brute force. One of the few things I learnt in GCSE IT is a quick overview of the Data Protection Act 1998. We’re allowed this data. The problem with this is resource. I, individually, stand little chance of extracting my data out of the tight grip of the lawyers of major corporations. I’ve tried a couple of times before giving up before my lunch break was up, or a strong desire to go to the pub. Maybe we should team up?
Could we get enough of us interested in getting our hands on our own data to hire a lawyer to represent all of us? Someone that knows the correct questions to ask, and the right way to approach it.
I have a lot of other thoughts around this area, and am personally very interested in pursuing it, but there’s no point in dreaming, this is my first step.
** Update **
OK, just to get a bit more precise on what sort of thing I’m proposing. I’m imagining something like a kickstarter/indiegogo project to fund going after a particular company, at first. I’m thinking either Facebook or Tesco.
If you have any thoughts, words or encouragement, or even better, a lawyer who would be interested, then please do contact me on twitter @abscond, or email me at email@example.com - and maybe we can make this happen.
With Little Printers shipping to loads of people in a few weeks time, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next.
BERG Cloud has been the most exciting, challenging and interesting project I’ve ever worked on. I’m incredibly proud of what we have made, and even more excited by what will happen next. However, I’m feeling the urge to strike it out on my own again and see what I can do with what I have learnt in the last few years.
All I’ve been able to come up with is some guiding principles for myself, and some vague hand wavy dreams. But no firm plans. So my immediate plan is simple: earn some money so I can afford to have a bit of a play, and some time to talk to people in my own capacity.
So, I am searching for two things:
Short Term contracts: If you’re in need of an experienced Ruby on Rails and Front End developer to work in your agile team for a few iterations from December, then get in contact. I’ll be putting together an updated CV etc. soon, but if you know me, and still want to work with me, then all the better.
Pub chats and long lunches: If you’re also contemplating striking out on your own, or already are, then let’s go for a drink. I’m not necessarily looking to start a partnership with you, just merely chat about our ideas, maybe even argue about them, but hopefully both of us will have a better idea of what we want by the end of it.
If either of these things are relevant to you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t know who I am, then abscond.org should hopefully give you an idea.
Let’s see how this goes.
Bus update, and a little iOS home screen icon generator
I got a little bit of time to fix a couple of thing on bus.abscond.org. The first is already written about, as I just followed this guide to use multi-threaded unicorn on heroku, which means I can now support 3 requests simultaneously, all for the low low price of free. It’s a perfect fit for my app, which is small and memory light, but hangs as it waits for TFL to respond.
The other is an attempt at a hacky solution to a problem a couple of people told me about. They use the service by saving their most used bus stops onto their iPhone home screen, which is great, but they struggle to differentiate between them. Fair point.
I heard Dopplr had this great way of choosing the colours for each city. They apparantly made an md5 hash of the city name and used the first 6 characters for a hex colour value. I’ve done the same, but why not make this a service as well? Meet colour.abscond.org. You might want to use it for your hacky app. If you’re going to be using it heavily, just clone this repository and put it on your own heroku instance. How I used it is shown in this mind numbingly simple commit.
I like this solution. It meets the requirements of the project which I think I’m getting close to being able to explain. So I’ll give it a go.
Everything the bus app did had to be insanely simple both from user and developer perspective. Basically, it had to be simple for me to build, use and maintain. This is why I accepted this pull request but not this one. This is why it is hosted on heroku (which is a-maz-ing) and doesn’t have a database or any caching. It involves being very restrained in trying out new ideas, both on features and implementations.
I have spent more time each on receiving compliments, turning down suggestions, turning down my own thoughts and writing about it than developing and maintaining it combined.
I’m not sure if this is professional or not. It’s very self motivated and ruthlessly lazy, but also requires experience in knowing what will be a pain later down the line.
From an interaction design point of view, it certainly has it’s own feel. Some people love the fact it works on everything, and is quick to use and understand, others hate the aesthetics of it. They’re both right. The only delight that comes from using it is it’s absolute functionality, and your functionality will vary depending on your own tastes in technology.
There are more smart things to say, but for now, I will continue letting people enjoy the app. Or not.
Stupid over the top extrapolation theory on Cosmic Habituation
So I’m going to start putting more unfounded beginnings of thoughts, and I’m going to start with a whopper.
I listened to a podcast which got me thinking something very OTT. You should listen to it so we’re on the same page. Go! Radiolab on Cosmic Habituation
Of course, this tests our idea of science. It challenges the very basics of scientific method. What if the very act of the scientific method itself changes the facts - an Observer-expectancy effect on our reality. Which, as the end fo the show suggest, seems to me that we cannot prove or disprove it. I think this gives me permission to go a bit out there.
If cosmic habituation is true, and we see interesting effects around us disappear as we discover and use them, resulting in nothing but a placebo effect as the only remnants of such facts exist in our culture, then what is to say that one day MDMA becomes a myth. Odd hippies sitting in fields taking it despite being disproven centuries ago, reading old records of it’s existing that have been discarded as old religion.
Maybe this is exactly what happened to homeopathy, a once very real and effective discovery that faded away from biology into society. Screw it, maybe Jesus did know how to turn water into wine.
OK, I should stop there. I’m about to be lynched by a mob.
Disclaimer: You should not try this at home. Over the top extrapolating into instinctively bad theories is dangerous and should only be attempted by professionals.
This is an example of me not being able to do anything
- I have a bath
- I discover my teeth hide more groseness than previously thought.
- I scrape the left side of my face with a rusty blade, trying to remember and motivate myself once again to buy new blades
- I realise the new book I have bought for my kindle appears to be much more sex novel than I though.
- I ponder wether my side effects repeating themselves is a sign of reversing out of the tunnel or just falling down it again.
- I watch new aesthetic videos whilst mining bitcoins. It takes a while for me to realise that that kernel panic was real.
- I publish the above point to 936 followers
- I write this blog post to much less
I’m still in bed. I’m just watching all the Interesting North presentations from bed. You can be my conference buddy.
This one has got me thinking about my current theory of why design is becoming so important.
I think to misquote Matt Webb, the Argos catalogue is the greatest example of evolutionary product development. They’re just making 10,000 of something, sticking it into the Argos catalogue and seeing what sells. The emphasis is on the manufacturer to turn cheap oil and cheap design into cheap products to lower the cost of the bet on this product being the next iPod.
Of course the problem with this is that cheap oil won’t last forever. Each bet suddenly becomes a lot more expensive, and that’s when designers and design process becomes more valuable.
We have a decreasing amount of oil and an increasing number of brains.