This isn’t a finished piece of work. I’m going to keep coming back to this over time to revise it as I change how I think about things. I thought that I ought to practice what I preach and 1) get it into source control, and 2) work in public.
I wrote this in the first few months of 2016. There’s still a lot left to do, e.g. things like actually working out if there’s a plot, let alone writing the chapters or rewriting them.
The point of this
I have a lot of ideas. I think that they can all coexist in at least one version of the future. This story is an attempt to cram them all into one place and see if they clash irrevocably.
I’ve blogged about most of the ideas in the story, and the ones that I haven’t, I’m trying to at the moment.
Some of this stuff relates to things I think about at work, I believe that it should be possible to fit this into the world that I want to create in the Me section of things. If I can’t I should really think about doing something else.
Without any more faffing, here’s ≈ 10k words with minimal editing!
Getting some dinner on the way home
He’d never understood the imperative to stand up the second the seatbelt light went out. it was if it’d been baked into the nervous system in primordial times. Maybe our species has lost the drive to do things at dawn, and have reconditioned ourselves, like Pavlov’s dogs, to react to the subtle ‘bing’ of the pilot’s instructions.
Sitting in his window seat, looking at a sea of waistbands and backpacks he turned off flight mode. Two rows ahead a short man, with a tactical backpack, fiercely guarded his position. The carabiners and other military-style accoutrements had snagged on a prim lady’s scarf and handbag as he’d pulled it out of the overhead bins. Scattering a magazine and various parts of her life under the surrounding seats. The short man, who had clearly never needed to be tactical in his life, was being very ungracious about it. The ladies things were stowed in an array of variously embroidered silk purses, presumably accumulated over many yoga holidays to India. The surrounding passengers collected up the the contents of the lady’s bag and returned them to her.
Watching her repack her handbag he realised that, in her organised and methodical way she was a thousand times more ‘tactical’ than the short man would ever be with his olive drab backpack and carabiners. He was wearing an urban anti-camouflage, whereas she was totally adapted for a successful insertion into the theatre at hand.
Other passengers were tutting and looking disapprovingly at tactical-man. (As he’d decided to call the diminutive toy soldier.) A click in his earpiece1 as the drivers went from rest to active let him know that Jane had woken up.
“How was the flight?” she asked. This seemed like a normal conversational opening, considerable R&D funding had gone into making it feel that way, but it had been sponsored by the airline (or a competing airline) to get feedback as close to the point-of-use as possible.
“It was fine, but those tiny muffins are still inedible. Also, can you remind me not to drink the coffee, even if my future self thinks it’s a good idea please? Actually put in a Habitica penalty for drinking airline coffee!”
“Sure, it’s done. Some of the people you met today have sent you connection requests on LinkedIn, none of them have custom messages, shall I approve them for you?”
“Yes, who hasn’t requested?”
“Nothing from the CEO of the solar company, or the lady who seemed to be the brains behind the robotics startup. Do you want me to send requests to them?”
“Leave the solar guy, he didn’t seem to fit in. The robotics lady was useful. Don’t send her anything just yet, but can you send me a profile of her and the company please?” It had initially seemed strange saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to an AI interface after a lifetime of ‘OK’ and ‘cancel’, but it made conversations flow better and made eaves droppers think that you had been well brought up. He wasn’t sure if the AI took any notice of politeness filler words, but he had a suspicion that the nerds who’d made them had snuck in some code to punish rude users as some kind of practical joke and social crusade.
People at the front of the plane had begun to shuffle out of the door.
“Jane, can you call me an Uber please2? Request it to the hotel nearest, but as soon as the driver accepts, call him and tell him to actually come to the airport.” Uber still wasn’t allowed to come to the airport, their app blocked requests from there to appease the unions, and Jane wasn’t allowed to store the request needed, but she could still perform it. It’d be taken out sooner or later, but for the moment it was like trying to swear using T9 predictive text on your Nokia.
“Will do, I’ll let you know when it’s confirmed.”
He flipped up the arm rests, slid across into the space vacated by his overly keen row mates and stood to retrieve his bag. He flipped out the wheels and shoved it into the narrow gap bounded on each side by the seats and behind by three generations of a family who had spread their luggage over about seven bins.
He said thank you to an air hostess who he hadn’t even seen during the flight and stepped off the plane.
“Do you want to pick up dinner on the way home?3” Jane asked “There’s Thai, paleo and BBQ all within less than five minutes deviation from the route.”
“let’s get barbecue” as he picked his way past some people on the aerobridge who had stopped to put their coats into their bags, blocking the narrow tube despite being only meters away from a spacious arrivals lounge. “Could you book me a workspace for tomorrow afternoon and connect a call to home please.”
He told her that he was coming home with some BBQ for dinner but she said that she’d already eaten. Too late to change the order but brisket for breakfast would be a nice change from omelettes.
They were a high service, high mobility, low ownership couple. Nobody had managed to make a catchy acronym out it like they had with DINKYs and Yuppies, but they were a clear target audience for marketers selling ‘x as a service’. Accommodation as a service, mobility as a service, shopping, laundry, even service-coordination as a service for those people who found organising others to do things for them too much. One of the few things that they did actually own was an omelette pan.
They’d been making omelettes on alternate days, competing to make the best classic French omelette with the eggs that their subscription brought them every three days. The eggs came from whatever hyper-local community farm that they were closest to at the time. The subscription covered all of them.
He got to the kerb a minute or two before a dark green SUV pulled up and waved to him. It took a few waves to break him out of a daze brought on my travel fatigue and a podcast about the Dutch East India Company. He ripped out his earpiece and bumbled an apology.
The car pulled away. The route to his apartment, via the BBQ shack, was plotted over a spinning map of the city. He fought back the primal taxi urge for a few long seconds, but once the car had accelerated up the ramp and onto the freeway he asked “How’s your day been?”
The driver’s day had been great. He’d had a second meeting with investors who would help to take his startup global, he’d taken his daughter to an under twelves bouldering competition and now he was getting three hours of driving in before bedtime because he hadn’t started drawing a salary from his company and wouldn’t until he’d got through this round of funding.
His bit of Jane had been negotiating with the BBQ shack’s bit of Jane. Letting them know how far away his was, what kind of car he was in, so as he pulled up a girls in a faded Oxford University sweatshirt4 and meticulously ripped black jeans handed an AromaSeal™ package through the window.
“Jane, bump their tip 3% for being on time.” He said in his AI voice. Everyone had an earpiece had one of these voices, and everyone had learned to ignore anything said in that voice. It was as if the speaker was breaking through the fourth wall of reality.
“There’s no need, their pricing is penalty based so if they’d been late they’d knock 1% off the price for every 5 seconds that you were waiting.” Only he heard her reply, but society had learned the intricacies that emerged from everyone having an imaginary friend.
He took a bottle of water from the glove box and the driver reflexively tapped the screen to add it to the fare.
The car pulled up in a familiar neighbourhood, but at an unfamiliar address. Their accommodation contract allowed the company to move them anywhere within a 2km radius with a day’s notice. They’d been moved while he was away. he liked it. The movers made sure that the few belongings that they had were carefully replaced in a spot as similar to the last place as possible. The rest was configuration variables in an app. An SLA or service level agreement. The more permissive it was, the cheaper it became. He would have allowed less notice to move, but 1 day was the minimum that they offered. Everything else had the sliders slammed right down to the most permissive level that the app allowed. Except for bedding. He had a specific pillow type that he liked.
People’s settings seemed to drift towards permanence and more quality as they got more money and more responsibility. The two of them were (rather unsuccessfully) trying to keep a cap on this creep.
Jane filled him in on how to get into the building, his phone’s NFC did all the keying.
She was ready for bed, doing yoga and watching an 80s cooking show on youtube, but doing neither with a lot of enthusiasm.
He’d been toying with getting an experience package upgrade for Jane, so he’d installed a free ‘Unstoppable bedtime routine’ package from a celebrity triathlete and fitness nerd. He worked his way through the routine, brushing his teeth when prompted to, moisturising his head; elbows and backs of his hands while wearing latex gloves to keep the moisturiser off his palms. Then the program took him through a guided meditation, but before the calming Scottish man had introduced the session he was fast asleep.
5Tapping away to ‘Maneater’ was really starting to get tedious. He’d streamed a load of the more popular Hall & Oates songs to settle an argument. He’d said that radio DJs played their Hall & Oates floor fillers faster than the album versions; she’d said that that was crazy. True to their respective professional creeds they’d tried to settle the argument with data, but sitting on the sofa their airBnB in their pyjamas they didn’t have the equipment to time one song played after the other and they both got distracted.
“You can rely on the old man’s money…” had, until yesterday, been an occasional treat but it was now like Hall & Oates had been killed in a tragic accident it was all anyone was talking about.
Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t so cheap. He didn’t listen to much music, so had the free version of the music service. For $12.49 a month he could have had higher sound quality and a human experience curator who would be the DJ for his life. It wouldn’t be a full time role, like having Jazzy Jeff playing a private party in his headphones. It was probably an unemployed musician, tweaking the AI that picked his music and reacting when they years of thumbs up at Hall & Oates turned suddenly into relentless thumbs down.
Experience curator was the latest job that had emerged out of the ongoing economic turmoil that started when companies regained their productivity after the GFC but with dramatically smaller workforces. New growth had come from user experience designers and pilates instructors creating new work, rather than expanding the headcounts in old work. All the old work had been systematized and automated away.
Experience curators had been a brave new hope for an un-automatable occupation. Within weeks of Business insider and Buzzfeed’s articles about this fledgling occupation, dripping with optimism, Ars Technica published an article about how Facebook were using experience curators as babysitters for their AI. Catching it when it did things in an “un-human” way and coaching it through a more appropriate response.
In some way he was an experience curator at the moment. His job was to play at anthropologist and business coach. To understand what ‘work’ meant for each group and try to steer it to give “better alignment of output with objectives” or some such MBA vocabulary. “Job” was a bit of a tenuous concept these days. The 80s had sent the idea of “the job for life” to the “quaint old concepts” bin. The decade after the turmoil had retired almost all of the rest of the concepts of occupations. People still had skills, but the key meta-skill was the ability to recompose those skills into new forms.
You were expected to design and reconfigure your offering to match the needs of the day; learning whatever was missing.
It’s like a person’s skills are a Lego set. In the “job for life” era someone else built the model, exactly as it was on the box. A pristine spaceship or racing car with the pieces carefully glued into place as they were assembled. In the 90s–teens, sometimes a person would find themselves not needing a spaceship any more. They would then buy an expensive new set, maybe a medieval castle, and then carefully build that. That retraining and remaking process took time and was disruptive to their lives. It meant recasting one’s identity from a statistician to a florist and all the social upsets that went with that. Now we each have a tub of parts. The older ones of us started with a spaceship or a medieval castle but have mostly broken it down. There are still remnants where a piece is customised, or an assembly is glued solidly together. Most people will rebuild themselves daily to be a new and previously unseen thing. If you need a new brick (skill) then you just learn that thing through a YouTube video or a tutorial on how to make 2x1 clear bricks for your mind.
Of course there was still specialisation; Adam Smith isn’t quite turning in his grave. Most daily reconfigurations are very minor, a brick here or there. Even the big changes are often just swapping the order of big subassemblies of knowledge. Often a big shift will actually be quite minor, like making a plane into a spaceship, because new bricks of skill and knowledge have accreted over time so the ‘official’ transformation is just a change in perspective.
His anthropology experience was essentially zero, but the label seemed to fit the work he was doing and there wasn’t an anthropologist’s institute to call him out as a fraud. (Even if there was he’d say that it was ‘like anthropology’ or that it ‘used anthropology concepts’.)
Today he was going through the data collected over the last week from a team who’d formed around a fitness startup. They had just started, so as well as the uncertainty around the product, there wasn’t a shared work culture. As the promotional quotes from his own product’s website claimed “Teams with a strong, shared culture are n% more effective.” He’d forgotten the exact number, and he’d always wondered what definition of ‘effective’ that quote referred to. But part of his coaching role was to get teams to agree on a definition of ‘effective’ for themselves.
Prior to the turmoil businesses were using vanity of lifestyle metrics, but as the economy recovered, but employment figures didn’t, people started to wonder if “time spent in the office” or “cost of suit” were effective ways of assessing someone’s impact. A lot of metrics that had become ingrained turned out to actually be negatively correlated with quality of outcomes. It turns out that if someone does 90 hour weeks, it’s a good signal that they are either hopelessly inefficient, or that their job is ripe for being automated away. We’ve known that outputs don’t scale with time since WWII, but a few outliers—the heroes of our time—invented rockets and virtual reality while driven by an all consuming fervour. As credulous mortals we didn’t stop to think about the stats, we just assumed that we could do it too.
His job today was to cut through the fragile, ego driven, ideas of what this team thought they should do and help them work out what they really should do.
The team had been going to the gym more than the baseline, but it was their job so it was to be expected. Their resting heart rates were mostly low, except for dome, and she had a documented dependence on energy drinks. Their geographic patterns and sociality were normal for a mature team, but the founders needed to be on the move a lot, wooing gyms and boutique fitness studios onto their platform. They weren’t communicating anything like enough for their current phase. This is a pretty common problem for fresh teams. They associate communication with noise and attention, so they do it in bursts, rather than treating everything they do as communication. Creating an exhaust of data that goes into a system that puts it in places that it can be seen. Communication is much more of an offering than a demand.
He made a note to evangelise about it in their next coaching session. Of course they could see his notes, so maybe the problem would be solved by then?
Juniper Knox’s parents made it and lost it, twice in the first .com boom. The second time, they’d structured things so that they did pretty well, despite the company tanking. They kept their house and some money, so it wasn’t painful. It made the then teenage Juniper had been put off going down the conventional route that the school careers advisor was pushing.
University seemed like a nice excuse to get away from home and party, but she was unusually pragmatic for her cohort. So while her friends were picking universities, Juniper bought a round world ticket. The plan was to get the partying out of her system far, far from home, then come home and enroll at University. A pretty straight forward [inaudible 00:00:48] plan.
She made it as far as Thailand and caught the Yoga bug. She did her instructor training and spent the rest of her allocated time working at a resort that catered to bankers and finance people trying to offset the excess of their lifestyles. The waiters were [inaudible 00:01:05], but instructors were expected to supplement their income with private sessions. Power couples addicted to superiority in all things would take one-on-one classes to make their vignettes a little bit better than their rivals. This added up. Some of the instructors were making first world wages in a developing economy.
Juniper did an online course in anatomy to unlock the next class of her instructor status and realized that she could skip University and get her whole education by the internet. Four years later, she spoke Thai, had done courses in enough subject to make an average liberal arts major blush because this was all in the early days of “mooks”. There was a disproportionate amount of technical content, mainly because it was easier to mock.
She did a course in web programming and realized that the way that they were booking sessions at the resort, right now, sucked. As the final project for the online course, she made a system that booked classes. It only worked for her at that point, but it gave her loyal clients a way to get her expertise without needing to go fire a receptionist and a pin board. It meant that she could rescue the lost revenue from someone who cancelled due to illness- resort code for: “I partied too hard”, by advertising a last minute slot by email.
In a virtuous cycle, this meant that Juniper was working at a much higher utilization rate than her peers. Fewer wasted hours, more control over her own schedule, more market driven pricing. Instead of being greedy, she spent more time on the system and offered it to her colleagues at her resort. Within a month, it had 6 instructors using it full time.
Then things took an unexpected twist. Bookings at the resort had previously been done at the reception desk, deep into the resort’s property. There wasn’t anything physically stopping people from outside from booking in for a class or a private session. In fact, the resort had been trying to advertise for more people to come and do this in the leaflets, alongside the tiger experience, elephant rides and scuba diving courses, but with very limited results.
The resort wasn’t remote, but it’s nature made it feel apart from it’s surroundings, in the same way that it feels odd to pop onto a five star hotel to take a leak. Strolling aimlessly onto a luxury resort felt as if one was going onto sacred ground, reserved only for the high priests of the 1%. The strange thing was that people from other resorts started showing up and taking the cancellation spots. The reception desk was geographically defended, but the booking page was available to anyone who had WI-FI in their resort chalet.
Keeping the pin board synchronized with the booking app was a real drag, but slipping the receptionists a few bob made the problem disappear. Juniper later discovered that the receptionists had decided it was easier to get everyone to book through the app, than to maintain two systems. She realized that if other resort guests were coming here, then she could just as easily send people to other resorts.
In the next two years, this thing grew, taking on some excellent local engineers and handling bookings from more and more resort instructors. Trang, the engineering lead, had essentially become head of product, which left Juniper free to visit other Yoga instructors, hang out with them and convince them onto her platform. They were getting some crazy new instructors joining, because they didn’t need to invest so heavily in publicity. One local instructor held classes in a raft, on a lake. It had been happening for years, but without Juniper’s product, it was impossible to make a business out of it. Now tourists, with a taste for the weird and adventurous, would consistently book out the four daily sessions.
Juniper was getting a bit bored and homesick. This wasn’t stretching her and it was never going to make her the kind of wealth she’d seen her parents make, then lose, in the .com boom. She made Trang CEO and moved home. If she could make it based mainly on session cancellations in Thailand, people weren’t so different back home.
Juniper had moved home and had started building a new idea built on connecting people with under booked classes. This struck a chord with both sides of the market. For everything that gym owners said about wanting to build happy communities, every empty spot that they could fill was almost pure profit. Their fixed costs were constant, so every empty spin bike or Yoga mat was a lost opportunity. The real-time nature of the idea meant that real members would never feel excluded.
On the other side, this chance for perpetual variety resonated with the people who had developed societal ADHD from constant attention strain. The commitment of joining a gym was too much of a burden. These people could easily spare the financial resources, but attention was their limiting factor. The ability to do something different every day hooked people in.
Juniper had what it took to put together a web app that chilled out tourists with an expectation of a certain level of shitness brought on by patchy resort WI-FI. She knew enough to realize that she was no match for real high concurrency, high availability app. Especially one that could convince people who had flicked over from their Instagram in the back of an Uber. They had an expectation of a minimum level of service that would need a proper product team.
Seed funding had come easily, friend’s of her parents had a small fund, so they’d known her since birth. Just being a friend of the family only got her foot in the door. The strength of the idea and the fact that it had validated by some extent by her venture in Thailand, made it easy to give her enough to get her, and a small team through the next six months. The deal came with help beyond the financial. Most of it was about reporting and mentoring. Getting her introduced to people. Monthly presentations to keep her focused.
The piece that felt the strongest was the introduction to (whatever his name is). This had jarred with her sense of autonomy for a few days, until she realized that she’d seen his role before. He was a guru. Not in the mystical sense of a person who serenely dispenses wisdom under a tree. Those people didn’t really exist. This was more like someone who was tasked to safeguard your well being on all levels. The combination of a personal trainer, business advisor and catholic confessional.
She’d met plenty of gurus in her time as a Yogi. Often they’d come to give special workshops and spend a few days extolling the virtues of abstinence and meditation, only to be found in the evening throwing down whiskey and soda with the kickboxing instructors and telling dirty jokes. She was under no illusions about his infallibility. That said, any help was welcome. This was going to be an order of magnitude harder than the Yoga app had been.
We need to get out of here
The notice period at octo labs is a week for fixed desks. Hot desks were billed by the second as a marketing trick that they’d grown out of walking looking for each other once the team got to four. It had been perfect when it was just Juniper and Grace. Juniper was out almost all the time, selling studios onto the idea and getting them committed to the platform, so she hardly needed a desk. Grace, first hire, head of engineering, product and everything at that point, was a full time desk resident.
Grace had been at school with Juniper. She’d taken a much more conventional path through life. She had a first class degree in computer science from a good university and completed her grad program at Microsoft Research without ever taking more than a week of holiday at a time. She’d left Microsoft Research to build banking software and despite the availability of several corporate wellness schemes, it had only taken her two years to be hospitalized from a stress related illness. Working with Juniper was considered rehab for her because who would be monitoring?
After hiring a full time graphic designer and absorbing a two person user experience consultancy, that was also working out of Octo Labs, they had enough people to justify a quad bank. Four desks that didn’t need to pack up at the end of the day. Their second quad bank filled up when another of Octo Labs teams imploded. Octo Development Bureau was an apt consultancy who were very well respected as highly technically proficient. Their CEO was the frontman for a four person team of developers who’d signed on for a deal where they got technical autonomy in exchange for being shielded from the clients.
When their CEO got spotted by an ‘executive search agency’, and poached for a project management role at Accenture, it left them headless. Juniper spotted the chance and just pushed their desks next to hers. This calms the arrangement, got them to where they were now. As with all obviously good ideas, they were no longer the only players.
There was a competitor from France planning to move into their domestic market and one of the big media companies was reportedly working on a direct clone. With something that was so dependent on relationships, it was hard to keep any new players secret. First mover advantage would only work for so long. Their competition would win in a battle of attrition, simply by being better capitalized. They needed a differentiating strategy.
Grace’s work at Microsoft Research had been on hybrid AI concierges using people to work alongside AI so they learned what to do. Grace and Juniper were playing with their database over coffee. It was a game that was won by finding the most interesting pattern. They’re about equal, as Juniper had bettered the main knowledge, but Grace was more technical. On a whim, Grace had classified the available classes by calorie expenditure. They spent some time going through the existing dutch board graphs with the new dimensions overlaid. Patterns were emerging that suggested that it was worth looking at.
People seemed to go for higher impact classes at the beginning and end of the week and lower in the middle and at weekends. Maybe they went too hard out of the gates, got sore and feel like they’ve fulfilled some of their virtuosity quota, then did something easier the next day. “If this is happening naturally, how can we take advantage of it? What can we do to push people when they need it and get them to back off when they’re going too hard?”, Juniper asked. Not especially to Grace, more to the screen in her hands or to the universe.
The rest of their afternoon saw them work up a plan that used all the access to facilities that they had and layered on coaching as a service. To begin with, this was human coaches, working out programming for people, but it had become AI based as they built up data and features. Pricing had to be a lot more than their current model. The new entrants would spark a race to the bottom. They played with several ideas, but ultimately decided to validate one that was based on results. I their service did what their customers were hiring it to do, then they could charge almost anything for it. If it didn’t, then they didn’t deserve a cent.
This was the deal that fad diets had been promising forever, but they charged a fixed rate because they had no levers, no data to push against. If one of their customers ate well, slept enough and did their prescribed exercises and still didn’t see it, it’ll make biometrics. Who knows. This is going to be a big deal.
It’d lean hard on Grace’s depth theoretical computer science background, leaving her stretched very thin if she had to be technical lead as well. It was also going to need more relationship building to get the coaches. That would soak up almost all of Juniper’s time. The strangest thing they’d need to do was to be secretive. Juniper was an inveterate Instagram-er. It was completely baked into her personality to be open about things. The current version of their app was completely open source because their value was in the relationships, not the technology. In fact the open source angle had been helpful in getting them profiled by a couple of tech blogs when they were just getting started.
This was going to need a new space. Octo Labs cultivated leads to journalists, almost as a benefit of being in the space. They needed a fortress to make this version.
In which our hero gets a full experience package
There were often stories on self-help and productivity blogs about how you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. It seemed to make intuitive sense, but the mechanism seemed a bit opaque; did people influence each other? Maybe they just sorted into groups based on their existing tendencies. He suspected that it was a bit of both.
It didn’t matter to him what the truth was; pragmatically it seemed to work. Of course that wouldn’t stop him obsessing over the mechanism that allowed it to work, but only once it’d started to affect his life. Until then it wasn’t on his radar.
When he stopped to consider his five, it was a bit depressing. Other than himself–who he’d decided was supernumerary–he spent his time with her and jane. The other three people were a rotating cast, drawn from a much wider pool. The time spent with them was asymptotically less than the time spent with his primary encounters. This seemed interesting and he asked Jane to put a future reminder to look into it later. Right now was about setting up an experience package6.
The arithmetic of averages was refreshingly simple. Five was a small group of influencers and he had strong control over one of them. Jane could help him be his best self, or lead him down paths of utter disaster, depending on how she was configured. It was the difference between being superhuman or an extra from a scanner darkly.
He’d been doing the bedtime package for a few weeks now. It’d improved his sleep and helped him squeeze a full hour extra out of his evening. He was sold.
Upgrading to a full XP7 (as they’d come to be known) was astoundingly intrusive. It controlled a huge portion of your life. You were admitting that you were a weak willed, squishy, flesh being, and that it’s more considered guidance would be your salvation and ascendency to the next phase of evolution.
Depending on your package, you would probably be handing over grocery and dietary choices, your reading list, your exercise plans, maybe even investment and financial autonomy.
There were plenty of services to help you pick and customise one, but most agreed that you should live with a full package for a month before you tweak it. It was stressful and difficult to let go of control over some aspects of your life, even if was to gain control of other, more important, parts.
They had both decided to get an XP, but she was away at the moment, and they’d decided to pick for themselves without consulting each other.
After doing a 100 part quiz to determine his current personality, and his ideal one, the website showed a configuration of modules that it thought suited him. Each had extra meta-data and a promo-blurb about its proposed benefits, social proofs and celebrity endorsements.
His proposed module configuration had a nutritious but unexciting meal plan, an exercise plan that wasn’t that different to the one he had now, but the real draw cards were very strong self control and time management settings. He dialled up the time dedicated to learning a little and confirmed the payment8.
He had only the rest of that day before Jane became the boss of him, at least until the habits were so ingrained that he didn’t need to be prompted. He decided to spend the last few hours with the Jane of this personality. He made a second pot of coffee for the day, took it up to the roof deck that this place had and asked Jane to read to him from some journal papers while the sun made patterns through his closed eyes.
He’d installed apps that seemed to ask for a lot of permissions before, but the XP app seemed to seemed to ask for direct access to his soul and everything else on the way. The program didn’t start until the morning, but XP needed to analyses his entire digital history to build a profile. Where did he waste time, what were his weaknesses, what routines did he have that could be manipulated and turned to his benefit?
As Jane read to him about automation hollowing out mid-skill jobs in the USA, every place he’d been in the last 3 years was being analysed by XP’s algorithms. On servers in an unknown Nordic country. Hardware that neither party needed to know about, processor cycles auctioned off in a complex auction that he was completely unaware of as the second cup of coffee burned his sternum slightly.
He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was pretty sure that it wouldn’t involve lying in the late afternoon sun, drinking two cups of coffee.
leaving the incubator
Always the ping pong. It seemed like a universal law of nature that if you put enough people in a coworking space that at some point a threshold is reached where there is always ping pong being played. Adding cheap beer just fuels the fire. It worked as a social lubricant; one person would reach their ping-pong-limit, leaving the other unfulfilled and an unknown would jump in to take over. Once a few vollies were exchanged it was like the players were old friends. ‘What are you working on?’ Was the coworking version of the old conversational crutch of ‘What do you do?’.
Tonight wasn’t so much about the introductions though. The exercise startup team that he’d been working with was moving out of the coworking space and into a command cell. Some people were calling it ‘graduating’, that felt completely wrong in the sense that they meant it, but it did have elements of truth. Graduation is a hinge in someone’s life between two periods. One where they’d gained seniority, comfort and close friends. The other has more potential, but is lonelier and the fish:pond ratio is reversed again. The people patting them on the back were congratulating them for leveling up, reaching a life goal, without considering if ‘up’ is the right direction. He stood with the rest of the team—five of them now but that would swell to seven next week—with a tin of beer. They were leaning against a counter with a stream of people coming over to reminisce about the four months that they’d shared in that place. Conversations would form bubbles that floated off to play ping pong doubles or to talk to ‘someone I want you to meet’ until it was just him and one of the founders, Juniper. He’d asked himself if there was a correlation between oddness of name and oddness of person. Were Johns more likely to become electricians or bankers and Junipers more likely to become yoga instructors? This Juniper had been a yoga instructor before she’d started this company.
“Everyone says that it was easy for us, that we got seed funding without even trying, that we’re the VCs pet darlings” She drained the rest of her tin and nailed a three pointer into the recycling bin “What those cunts don’t ever talk about is how many times we pivoted before we found this. ‘Pivoted’ sounds so clean, so planned. Maybe ‘near death collapse’ would be a better name for it!” She paused and got another can out of the fridge that they were leaning against. She offered another one to him, but Jane made a disapproving sound so he gave his beer a little shake as if to say ‘I’ve got plenty left’. She jumped up onto the counter without using her hands to help and opened her beer. “Everyone is so fucking chipper about us ‘graduating’ but I’m scared shitless that shutting ourselves in a box will kill us.” One of the strange side effects of the work he was doing with them was that people felt comfortable revealing their weaknesses, using him as a therapist. He didn’t charge extra for it because the extra insight it gave was way more than he could get from any amount of sensors. The data gave him lots of what, but turning that into why was hard work. If people opened up to him like that it saved hours of analysis.
“If you’re so worried about moving, why not stay here?”
“We’ve got to the size of their biggest desk. We can’t be sure of getting everyone sitting together. If we’re apart then there’s no point in having an office at all. We need to be in hearing and talking distance. When people need to get some high focus stuff done they can either go somewhere else or put their cans on, but if they are there then we all amplify each other. If we can’t get that then we might as well fuck it all off and get a normal job.” All of this was accompanied by a lot of gesticulation with the beer can. It was clear that any fear of what was ahead was greatly outpaced by a fear of what would happen if they did nothing.
“So why go to a command cell rather than just getting a regular office?”
“Beside the fact that nobody will rent us a normal office? We’re too much of a risk to sign a five year lease, we could be dead in 2 months! It’s too much of a risk for us too. We don’t want a lease on a place that will never be mummy bear’s porridge. It’ll be too big right up until it’s too small.
That’s all irrelevant anyway. I don’t want regular office space. We don’t have regular anything else. We’ve got fully elastic computer infrastructure, we calculate real time pricing with our studios and our ad partners. Having some bullshit room with a gray carpet and a polystyrene ceiling isn’t in our company’s DNA. (Whatever the fuck that means!)
Having a command cell works on that amplify thing I was talking about. Having work as a place you go to use out of date technology isn’t helping anyone. It’s got to have a pay off. All that time spent commuting, time spent away from your family, it’s got to be for a reason.”
“That makes sense. I guess I physically come to you because of the bandwidth of actual proximity. But what is the reason? Can’t you just get one of those meeting-room-for-hire things that you see on the back of busses?”
“You were telling me a long time ago about hybrid chess teams, about how humans and computers working together could beat computer chess masters and human chess masters working alone. That’s kind of how we’ve built this thing. It’s us working with the machines. But that’s not enough any more, it’s not some highly fucking classified secret that hybrid teams work. Everyone who isn’t totally incompetent is doing it.” She took a big swig of her beer and added “granted that ‘totally fucking incompetent’ describes most of the incumbents that we are up against, but they have lots of capital, and it takes time and the best weapons to wear down that armour.”
A stray ping pong ball flew straight at them. Juniper lifted her legs to let someone pick it up and pulled them under her so she was sitting cross legged on the counter.
“So what do you get from this space that you don’t from any other?”
“Amplification! It’s not just a flat surface to sit at. Everything in there is designed to make us better. It’s like flying business class, but in a workplace, without the wanky pyjamas. It’s many humans working with many machines, but also working with each other.
Everyone says they are most productive when they are at home, somewhere they like being, and that they only come into the office because it’s expected” she spat that last word out with such hatred. “The point of this space, and all the stuff that comes with it is that it makes us better than we can be apart, even with all the fancy comms tech you can get now, this is comms tech IRL. We need that to keep our edge.
All the coaching work that you do will be amplified too. You’ll have more data, it’ll be collected better and all that. That’s why you’re coming to the onboarding next week, I’m not just feeling generous.”
“There’s an onboarding? Isn’t that a bit weird? It’s just a room isn’t it.” The whole concept of amplified teams had caught him offside. This was making him feel a bit out of the loop. He was being a dickhead about this and some part of him could feel that. The had distracted the rational captain of his mind and while it was distracted the homunculus had rushed in, locked the door and was steering the ship while the captain watched disapprovingly through the porthole in the door. Soon the rational captain of the brain ship would get control back, but regaining the course would be painful.
“I sense from your tone of voice that you’ve forgotten that monday is blocked out for the onboarding session. The morning is with the team and in the afternoon they are taking you through how to use the analytics platform.” Jane gently reminded him.
“Hey dopey!” Juniper was waving at him, laughing at his inability to split his attention. Even after one beer Jane would make him forget that he was in the real world. In Bars he had to find a seat with his back to the screen of the array of flashing, coloured lights would distract him to the point of seeming catatonic, regardless of what was actually on the screen. Some kind of vestigial hunting instinct that did more harm than good now.
“Sorry, I got caught up in some kind of infinite loop that wasn’t going anywhere. Thinking about this amplified thing.”
“You are such a spazz. You zone out like that all the time. I usually don’t say anything because you usually say something useful afterwards.
To go back to your question, no, it’s not just a room. That’s kind of the point. It’s part elastic hosting for our bodies, and part a way of making us be better. I hate dealing with real estate people; all the permanence and commitment makes me feel itchy inside my skull. This thing lets me scale the number of people we have without talking to any of those creepy guys.”
They talked for a few more minutes about how creepy real estate people could be. Juniper had a strong aversion to people who wore expensive suits with cheap shoes. As if they’d skipped half of the ‘how to dress like a grownup’ lecture.
Of course they end up playing ping pong.
Saturday started with the first of his shim packages being delivered. It was one of those packaged that gets breathlessly unpacked on YouTube. It was designed to overcome the last vestiges of his old self, and help the transition into the ‘new you’ so often promised by soft focus adverts.
On the top of the crate, in a san-serif font printed in silver on the raw card background, was the instruction:
“Don’t open me yet, just tell Jane that I’ve arrived.” This sort of personification of objects annoyed him, but he couldn’t tell why, which annoyed him even more.
“Jane, the box has arrived”
“That’s exciting! Are you ready? This is going to be hard, I’m going to be telling you what to do rather than you telling me. It’ll be strange for both of us.”
He laughed, “I’m ready”
At Jane’s instruction, he pulled the fabric tabs that bookended the silver text. The top came off and revealed a single cylindrical monolith inset into an A2 expanse of moulded card9.
“Take it out” Jane encouraged. It was bin bags, neatly rolled10 placed with the seam facing down so that from above it looked like a perfect black cylinder. Underneath the roll was another fabric tab, with the same silver text; one word either side, not yet. “Go to the fridge and put everything in the bag.”
The layer under the bag housed a stack of boxed, ready made meals that seemed to feature a lot of sweet potato. They had a coloured sticker on their short ends so that when they were stacked in the fridge you could see which day was which in neat towers of 4. Jane explained to him that everything in the shim period was about habit forming. These were to get him into the habit of eating the right things but without having to form the shopping and cooking habit to support it. The shim would taper once each habit was formed. Each label had his name and the percentage of his recommended daily allowance of nutrients based on his weight and activity level, all printed in the cheerful colour that marked the day.
Three printed placemats made up the next layer. These were like trainee butlers would use when learning to set a formal table for royalty, except instead of marking where to put the oyster fork, these mats had shapes with, mostly circles, with words that seemed to imply that there was going to be a chemistry experiment coming up.
In the next compartment, uncovering it like a lifestyle archaeologist, there was a jigsaw of angular containers, tessellated together like crazed pane of glass11. These little boxes had little containers of supplements, a small cup and a pair of orange lensed glasses, some earplugs and a molded eye mask.
The last layer had three indentations in it. In the middle was a paper notebook with the XP branding on the cover. He picked it up and flicked through it. The pages were mostly plain with a dot grid, but interspersed were workbook pages and line drawings to colour in. The other two wells were same the size as the notebook but contained branded boxes. One from 23andMe for genetic testing, and the other from WellnessFX for blood tests. Their branding was conspicuously different to the rest of the box, lacking the continuity that the experience had provided so far, but he guessed that these were semi-medical offerings, so the branding brought them a level of trust. He put these in the fridge without thinking, the fridge felt like the right place for medical things.
“It’s time to have your first meal” so this was the new Jane, the one that was in control of him “It’s the one with 2 Saturday printed on it. This one’s cold, but the next meal is hot so get 3 Saturday out and put it in the circulator”
He took the two meals out of the fridge, the first was a salad of some sort12, the other was a lot less obvious. It looked like coloured bubble wrap. Four blisters of different sizes13, tightly vacuum around different components of the meal. It looked like a prison meal from a space penitentially, but I dutifully dropped it into the water bath as Jane adjusted the temperature.
On the balcony, breakfast salad box perched on his knees Jane took him through the what he was to do with the rest of the box’s contents. He resolved that as an act of civilised rebellion he was going to use a real plate for all his future meals. There was nothing wrong with the boxes, but he felt as if he needed to have at least some agency.
“We’ll need to clear a space for the placemats to go. They are mise en place for your life. They let you see very quickly if you are missing something, and what you need to do next.”
“This is all starting to feel a lot like I’m in an assisted living home for old people.”
“That’s not far from the truth actually. When people get old and need assistance it’s because their faculties are failing them. The idea of all of this is to take the pressure off your faculties and give you that energy back to do the things you really want to do.”
“That’s part of the problem! I’ve never been very good as deciding what i want to do. Whenever I sit down and try to plan my goals out I get distracted by easier things.”
“You said that you work better when there is some pressure to pay attention from others being present. This is a very common trait. There is an XP goal setting workshop that’s already booked in for next Wednesday evening.”
- Mari Kondo belongings
- The rest of the box:
- Mies en place Placemats for the kitchen and the bathroom
- Ready meals - portioned for his weight and activity level - into the space made in the fridge
- Orange glasses
- Basic Supplements
- Shaker etc.
- 23&me and wellness FX kits
- Phone is feeling hot from extra app downloads, intro and level up model to introduce them all
- Talk through a morning routine in the shim period
- Include HRV
- Coming off the shim
- Start cooking own meals
- Ingredients are still delivered
- This is common because renting retail space for supermarkets is expensive.
- Ingredients are still delivered
- Results from testing come back
- Start cooking own meals
- An experience package is a way of living your life that is curated fully by someone else. Traditional fad diets always had an out because people would do something that compromised the purity of the idea14. An experience package is fully curated. Mostly out of other curated submodules. I.e. your workouts might be designed by person a and your nutrition might be designed by person b, but your whole package would be put together by person c. Person c would put together a complete package of designed submodules, tweaking them where necessary so that they fitted together, and branding the whole thing as a package. Particularly motivated people15 could design a package for themselves using open source tools and submodules. I wrote about this here: Personal stack
- What sort of stack should he go for?
- The rest of the chapter is just the teething pains of adjusting and all the new toys that arrive in the post.
- She’s impressed, decides to get a package
- Talk, at length, about his bag?
In which the team moves into a new space
- The struggle of not having contexts to work
- Needing to clear wall space etc.
- The fitness startup is too big for the incubator/coworking space that they were in, and move into a 1000ft²/93m² private spot.
- The cool new space
- The new desks
- Flip up monitors
- Keeps tops clear
- Makes desk into board table
- Down projector onto desktop
- Flip up monitors
- Context specific workplaces
- Contexts are specific to old kinds of work, do we need new contexts for new work?
- Team coworking - instead of individuals in a large space, teams in a large space. Maybe like cells make up an organism, team coworking would be like organisms in an ecosystem. Some notes:
- I’ve been avoiding this chapter, I need to grasp the nettle. I’ve also been avoiding bringing in new characters.
- Start at a party at the coworking/incubator space. Team reminisces about the good and bad things about working in a shared environment. Lots of events and introductions leading to small contracts and collaborations.
- How does work grow in this world? If people are doing ‘work’ like in chapter 1, what does it mean to scale a team? Value of continuity, new type of team, high commitment teams?
- Amplified teams, Like in History Of The Future In 100 Objects
- High commitment teams need a lot of support
- Can they even work?
- Teams that are born out of coworking may feel isolated. Team coworking, no different, just at a scale one order of magnitude larger.
- War rooms, either fixed or deployable
- Team doesn’t need to be geographically fixed, address can switch on a weekly basis - hot officing.
- Fixed minimum infrastructure is a black box and either a ceiling grid of hooks or a net.
- Coworking needs colocation. Can e^ ( like 10e^6 etc.) work at with larger scale?
* Some structural stuff
* Harder to do accidental interactions
* Create common infrastructure at local scales
- Coffee floor by floor
- Living rooms that host events that move about from living room to living room. That would mitigate laziness causing isolation if events were all centralised. Host must speak at event.
- Needs in one unit:
- Desks, projector (top and side, top for shared work, side for telepresence and presenting), still and sparkling water, lockers, whiteboards, wall space (where you can be less precious and you can make persistent things)
- Another unboxing
- Access badge and personal sensor pack
- This would have their access token but it’d be like jewelry
- It’d also have some way of assessing face to face interactions
- They are already personally monitored, so it’s just a case giving permissions to the room’s app
- Once they are paired with the badge and the badge is paired with their systems it will act as a 2 factor authentication and will also log them into their computer.
- Order Bags for the lockers
- Bags are customisable, over a frame, so that they are individual, but they fit neatly into the lockers
- Water glass and mug that fits into the bags
- Pencil case
- This is like a business class amenity set. What else would be in there?
- Cards that explain the hookups you get from being part of the bigger ecosystem.
- Access badge and personal sensor pack
- Hooking into the system
- Plugging in their personal umbilical
- Plug into the black box and show it your badge to make that port live.
- Polymagnets make sure that the cord sticks to the right place on the race. It’s like a cable tray without a cable tray.
- Run the cable to a point on the desk. That activates that work point. (powers up the monitor, the charger ports in the drawer and the internet connection)
- Installing the app for the room on their computer
- Can control localised climate from desktop
- Can see your dashboard
- Team dashboard
- Plugging in their personal umbilical
- Meeting the other command cells in the building at a living room talk
- Having to give a living room talk as the new kids
- Actually using the desk
- Maybe switch hero for this?
- Who are the new people, how will they fit in?
- 2 ounce bounce and other top ups
At home again, the packages clash
- Goals differ
- Habit forming requires certain things
The team grows, and has some teething problems
- The woes of team loneliness
- In previous space there were non-team people
- Parallel with marital fidelity
- How to fix it
- Adding another team member
- How to pick a person
- The mechanics of getting their work space set up
I also wrote about a very basic version of this at the end of this piece about podcast technology.
The name Jane is taken from the ender novels. Jane is a sentient AI that helps Ender with things. ↩
Julie Ask, an analyst at Forrester Research. She says being able to tell the Echo to call an Uber is fun, but incremental. “In five years, my Echo will say, hey, it’s about time to go to the airport. Should I get you a car? And I’ll just say yes,” she said. “That’s the difference between where we are today and where we want to be.” ↩
If I learned one thing from my time living in Oxford, it’s that the set of people who wear Oxford Uni sweatshirts, and the set of people who went to oxford uni don’t intersect at all. ↩
Big Rewite needed on this chapter. Make it much more conversational. Talk a lot about the sensors that are common and allow him to do his work. ↩
MM says “I like where this is going, spiritual guide X technology and how clever AI could totally manipulate us” ↩
This could be in a bunch of ways. AS he’s wearing an ear piece, there’d be 2 factor by default. ↩
MM: “I had to remind myself Jane is the AI assistant and not the life partner at this point! I was reading chapter 3 as though Jane was a human partner, until I remembered she was an AI. Probably doesn’t mean much and maybe that is a point you are trying to make?” BD (9 Apr 2016) “It’s not, but maybe the ambiguity is a good thing? I’m not sure. The Jane character is directly ripped off from the Ender series, books 2-4 where the wife’s jealousy of Jane is a plot point.” ↩
Should this be a single, folded bag, for him to put the food into? ↩
I’m trying to explain how the Estimote beacons look, but I don’t think I’m doing very well. ↩
I’m thinking like a pret a manger type thing ↩
IB said (13 Mar 2016): “How do these packages differ from a regular diet etc. in our awesome ability to sabotage ourselves while on them? What happens when you walk past a donut and you really want one? How does the system know if you want a donut or not? Does it talk to you and coax you out of it? Machine learning but for you… it knows that on Friday you feel like you’ve earned a beer so it schedules something for you and schedules your food intake around that.” ↩
IB said (13 Mar 2016): It would be interesting to explore the types of packages people would design for themselves and how successful they are. For example - I think I go to the gym 5 times a week but the reality is probably on average around 3 times. etc. Do people know what’s good for them? The machine knows you better than you know yourself ↩