No points for “I told you so”

Recently I read an article about Search Engine Optimization as it related to “content marketing”.  Hey!  ”Cool,” I thought, “A new buzzword”.  Something we can all use to sound sagacious and learned to clients who are afraid of technology.  It’s always useful to grow that toolkit. I know, I sound cynical, but one must learn to embrace one’s inner consultant.  In any case, the article went on to discuss how the quality of your content and its proper exposition in metadata ensures that it is discoverable by all the various bots and agents out there.

Our pals over at @Steadyrain have been hammering this point pretty hard lately, too. A recent capture from their feed:

My, my.  Apparently, things do come around.  It was 1996 and Uncle Bill told us that Content is King.  Unlike many of Bill’s works, I actually bought into this one.  And here we are now, nigh on 17 years later, and content is once again king.  In a perfect world, this would be the moment when everybody turns around and gives my shoulder a friendly squeeze and says “you were right all along!”

You see, in my career as a web site developer and technology strategist, I was asked many times about the proper way to optimize a web site for search engine visibility. My answer was invariably that you should build a web site with the best, most relevant original content you can produce and the interested parties would flock to your doorstep. I called it “building a community of common interest”.  Mmmmm, I love the smell of fresh idealism.

I advised my clients that SEO was a good way to throw away a lot of money if you felt like you had too much at any particular time, but otherwise it was a trick for people who didn’t have anything interesting to say to fool innocent people into visiting a web site that, at best, would waste their time with idiotic flash animations and audio tracks you couldn’t turn off. Instead, I advocated for usefulness and genuine quality.  Often this advice was ignored, as is the client’s prerogative to do so, but by golly if I didn’t stick to my guns each and every time I was asked.  After all, I had developed a content management system.  It only made sense that I should encourage my customers to go out and manage some content.

But, despite my assertion that content was king, I would regularly find myself in the room with the antithesis of my ideal.  People who insisted there was a way to get the world to pay attention to you without putting in the effort of developing actual substance.  Behold, the dark art of SEO.  Now I know I’m being unfair.  I know there’s a place for this sort of thing, but it didn’t stop me from characterizing these practitioners as fast talking twenty-three old club kids who needed the extra cash for bottle service and hair products.

But, here we are again, and the great wheel of karma has turned, and all the technology fashionistas have once again decided that the big, fat, new idea is that you should really have something interesting and useful to tell people, and when you do that, your relevance in the mystical indexes of Google and your social capital will improve.  I HAVE BEEN VINDICATED.

The question I want to ask now is what we can do to make those ideas in our heads something that translates into quality content?  If people who can translate complicated ideas into readable prose are such a valuable resource, how can we make more of that value?  How do we lower the bar so that the act of creating this quality content is not such a chore? Dare I say it, how do we make it fun?

I don’t think we’ve done much with this yet.  I’m writing this article in the latest version of WordPress, a very modern and with-it CMS.  A tool ostensibly designed to get that quality content out there as efficiently as possible.  And yet when it comes to the actual process of crafting the copy, it’s just me and a blank white box, and a few thousand strokes of the keyboard in the proper sequence to produce the result.

There’s got to be something more to it than that!

Open-Ended Conversational Interface Design

Control panel prop on the Enterprise

Of course it’s just a prop on a TV show, but those little buttons are supposed to do something. How does the crew know which to press? It’s just random numbers!

All the people on the Enterprise are so confident when they tap on their LCARS control panels… but, if you look at them up close, you’ll see the Okudagrams don’t actually describe any particular function.

So (and yes I know, it’s just a TV show) but it occurs to me that if we use our imaginations and think about how these people are actually getting work done in this environment, there must be a pretty shallow learning curve to making these totally counterintuitive interfaces do something.  What do you suppose the secret is?

I think the secret is that it doesn’t matter what you tap on.  The buttons are just placeholders for an expression of your will to take a generic action.  It’s a conversation through gestures that starts with “Hello, I’m here” and ends with “I want to turn on the lights” or “I want to beam down to the planet”.

How do you suppose we would manifest an interface like this on our primitive computers of today?  I’ve tried doing some experiments like this, and in fact one of my oldest web application development projects for an actual client started out this way.  But, it was rejected for being too weird.  But, I think I was onto something there.  It’s only taken 14 years for me to realize this, of course.

Now, my impulse is to hold this post as a draft until I’ve actually come up with some diagrams and prototypes.  But, that’s not how one blogs.  So, I’ll just say that it’s on my mind… and this topic is to be continued.


Selfishly Seeking Symbiosis

Let’s discuss self-actualization. Why do we make an effort to be useful human beings?  

It’s been on my mind, since I’ve been considering a change in work. I read an inspiring article recently suggesting that nobody is going to stand up for my interests except for me, and that I should actively cultivate a network of relationships that maximize my ability to pursue those interests.  Leaving it in the hands of others means I am serving them first, which is a shitty way to spend time.

Despite a strong odor of objectivism, the article reminded me that the purposes I serve are, in fact, my own privilege to determine.  The way I have been spending my one and only life lately has not made the difference it should, though a couple years ago, reaching out for a life preserver and starting to pay back my creditors was the responsible thing to do.  But, with stability achieved, it’s time to climb that hierarchy of needs again, since all I’m really doing now is servicing the interests of material wealth, most of which belong to other people. So, if that’s not what I’m about, what is?

Why do people pile up more possessions than they need?  Fear of uncertainty, maybe. Fear that what they do to acquire food, shelter, entertainment, transportation, insight, etc. will someday end, to be interrupted by the turning wheel of capricious fate.  As it goes around, what was once a sure thing becomes unfashionable and unprofitable.  And, if we accept that the product of our efforts are first translated into a medium of exchange (money), then it seems obvious that we’re talking about who is getting paid. Who has convinced whom of their value, and how much?

Let’s look at of a typical software consultancy.  What purpose does it serve? 

It’s tempting for me to find a place in an agency that consults for big companies on the latest Java mcdoodle to synergize ROI on the inter-departmental 3-month core competency tiger team leveraging TLA. There’s certainly money in it, if you can keep your brains from melting.  I recently spent a couple of months working inside such an organization, and while the project itself didn’t bear a lot of fruit, I personally arrived at some useful insights.

In these clean, white hallways, we have two groups of people who (although they move around inside of the same physical space) do not actually function within the same consensual reality.  One day, we’ll all be wearing contact lenses that blot out the things we don’t want to see.  These people are ahead of the curve, though– they’ve trained themselves to do the same thing through sheer force of will.  You’d think it would be in their best interests to work closely with each other, but no; they only speak with each other when it’s absolutely necessary.

In one layer, we have business people.  They’re responsible for seeking consensus among all the competing interests of stakeholders, and thus, making sure there’s money flowing into and out of all the proper orifices of the company.  In the other layer, we have the craftspeople.  These are the people who engage in personal growth for a living, and apply their cultivated abilities to build things and solve problems.

The conventional wisdom is for the businesspeople to be up front, decision makers, first to do the taking, and most deserving of the biggest reward.  Counter-symbiotic.  Machiavellian. The expectation is that these people will wear the daddy-pants and be the grown-up in the room, weaving a pleasant fiction for the flighty craftspeople that they’re respected as artists, free thinkers, and world-changers, while at the same time selling the ticking-off moments of their lives as a commodity to be bought low and sold high.  This is commonly known as “making good business decisions”.  They handle the money… and money is what motivates people.  Right?

Symbiosis is what really motivates people.  A desire to be needed, to give and take in equal amounts in an ecology of ideas and resources that leaves everybody a winner.  

I have a fantasy.  It’s a mythical company which can not possibly exist, but represents an ideal place where all peoples’ outputs have inputs in equal proportion to the effort they are capable of making.  It’s the unattainable ideal, where creative thinking is put into action to do things that all the people involved agree serve the greater purpose of making our civilization more enlightened, civil, fair, efficient, clean, and just.  Such an enterprise would not have to build a fiction for employees that their actions count on more than a billing sheet.  Such an enterprise would sustain itself through simply existing.

The problem with this fantasy is that the symbiosis of the company would only exist within itself, and not with the greater civilization.  Other companies would exploit them; lie and cheat and steal through the other great motivator, the fear of not being in symbiosis. It is this fear which drives most peoples’ actions.  The fear that there will not be an output for your input, that you will not be needed or appreciated or missed when you’re gone.  The fear that whatever currency this give-and-take is transacted in, you wil be deprived.  How ironic that the fear of losing harmony prevents harmony from ever reaching its full realization.

But, we can try to get as close to the ideal as we dare.  We can make sure that rewards for contributions to the company’s well-being are shared fairly, we can strive for transparency and honesty in our actions and motivations.  We can ask whether the things we are doing in our work make our world more pleasant.  We can tell people when they are doing things that are manipulative and disingenuous.  We can help other people to be as empowered and creative as possible.  And, with all of this, we can do our best to belong in our own lives and define a purpose for ourselves that is more than just a paycheck and health insurance, but makes possible the full exchange of goodwill and resources to make you an integral part of your own time and place.

Narrative is a Workaround for the Limitations Placed on us by the Architecture of the Universe

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK: read one word after the other > Trillions of interconnected neurons in the human brain

The software is not fully utilizing the hardware. If our brains are massively parallel, surely we can do better to feed them than just reading words one after the other.

I’ve been trying to get my ideas clear on this for a couple weeks, and haven’t found a way to focus enough on finishing it until now.  This is probably a clue that I’m being too ambitious for a single article.  Blogging is about persistent baby steps, right?  The routine of posting, not writing War and Peace.  It’s supposed to be an ongoing process, not doing it all in one shot.  Okay.  So, I’m gonna take a big, high concept swing at this one, anyway.

A big, tangled wad of string

I like a good story.  I read a lot of books, and I watch a lot of films.  I like the process of taking a journey with an author, starting with a clean, fresh world, and letting myself be drawn down a path of exposition which, in the end, lets me think about my own life from a new point of view.  Our civilization puts a lot of stock in narrative, I think because it gives us a common vocabulary to use as examples in describing our own experiences.  More on that some other time. Anyway, our world being so filled with stories–more than I will ever be able to absorb– is a delightful and wondrous thing.

When I was a little boy, I liked to take things apart.  I got in trouble more than a few times because I had torn apart some piece of electronics, rendering it useless in an effort to understand how it worked.  It wasn’t that I was out to destroy whatever gadget I set my sights on, but I wanted to know how it did the thing that I thought were so cool.  I had to know why it worked.  Appreciating the thing at its face value just wasn’t enough for me.

The same goes for the wonder of narrative.  I want to know what’s actually happening when we sync our clock with a film director’s work for two hours.  We experience our lives moment-by-moment, one after the next, and so we can’t just download 5 seasons of Quantum Leap instantly into our mind and understand the significance the series. Instesad, we have to watch each and every one in order.

That seems like a pretty significant constraint, you know? like a law of the universe is  getting in the way of what the the mind is otherwise capable of. What influence does the nature of space and time have on how we enjoy a book, or a film, or a song?  I think it’s pretty amazing that although we’re trapped in the four dimensions of x,y,z, and time, we’ve got the capability to construct vast palaces of interconnected ideas, devise multidimensional plots, fugues, hypertexts, puzzles, and other things which transcend those dimensions, that exist in spite of the way we all subjectively experience existence.

Wait, what?  The subjective experience of existence?  Exactly. Let’s think about how you are reading this very text, right now.  One. Word. At. A. Time.  In fact, how else could you do it?  Even if you read it really fast, the very nature of this exposition is linear.  Whether you are reading this text or jumping out of an airplane, as the second hand eternally sweeps around the clock’s face, you follow a one-dimensional thread of experience and feed that thread into your brain where it gets wadded up and tangled into chaotic folds that touch different pieces of itself, and the reels are always drawing more in, all to be filed away with the black box flight recorder of Your Personal Point of View Airlines.

So!  Inside our skulls is a vast, tangled, multidimensional instance of you, capable of conceiving things without constraint for the demands of consistency in physical structure or temporal causality.  Outside our skulls our subjective universe can be represented is a ball-point pen, drawing an endless single line on a sheet of paper.  Ironic!  And, yet, we have such a rich heritage of exposition in sound and images and words.  What lengths we go to!  Just so that the patterns in the tangle of thread in my skull can, with some effort, resemble the patterns in the tangle of thread inside of your skull.  It’s quite a chore!

De-Serializing Utopia

Let’s discuss that chore for a moment.  The architecture of the universe being what it is, our knowledge as instantiated in our minds is a precious thing; the product of a lifetime’s effort.  And yet, we conflate such knowledge as being the same thing as “data”.  Sure, we can use “information” as a catchall term, but it’s imprecise.  Speaking precisely, knowledge is data that is “in play” within a person’s mind; data itself is just the artifact used to create sensory stimulation – a symbolic representation that is able to move through networks, and wires, and be stored on paper and film, and tape and servers.

The refinement of these messages is where we usually define craftsmanship in design, writing, photography, music, illustration, etc.  In any case, the impression this makes on the squishy bits… that is, real-live people… is the critical part of the system. Thus, it’s essential to discover the roles people are playing in the process of telling a story or affecting a process. Who handles, shapes, formats, and disseminates the data?

And, beyond that, how is the specific technology and mediation affecting how that message is interpreted?  We take this for granted, but in practice it has many moving parts.  Your experience reading this page, for instance, is a storied and involved transaction:

- knowledge exists in the mind of the originator,
- knowledge is symbolically expressed through language,
- symbolic expression is sorted, cleaned, formatted, and organized into data,
- data is systematically filed in a database,
- data is made available on a network in a clear, universal, indexed format,
- data is found by audience member on that network,
- data is rendered on the audience member’s local device as a symbolic expression,
- audience member sees and hears the symbolic expression,
- knowledge exists in the mind of the audience member. 

At the beginning and end of this process, we have an occurrence of instantiated knowledge in a sentient entity.  But, in all likelihood, not precisely the same knowledge!  Like a analog tape being copied too many times, something happens to mutate the author’s intent by the time it’s in the mind of the audience. Such is the nature of the mediated message process described above.

And even with all of this analysis, each situation is different: How tools are used to store, format, organize, aggregate, and output material causes more or less faithful re-serialization of material back into knowledge in a message’s recipient.  If we are to make our civilization one with more empathy, where we live harmoniously and work towards the common good, improving this process is very important.  But, how do we fine-tune our tools to be harmonious with such lofty goals?  What is the next step in breaking down these barriers?


Aimlessness as an Engine of Serendipitous Invention

Recently I read the article “Some people like to eat out“ in which Dave Winer reacts to an article by Felix Salmon called “How Capitalism Breaks the Web“.

Felix laments for today’s Internet culture, in which the idealism of the tinkerer has been supplanted by a handful of unimaginative, corporate, monocultural, consumption-centric portal sites.  He’s sad that the technology community has focused on trying to build more of the same, because it’s been taken over by capitalists who are in love with profit first and technology second.  He tells us that back in the good old days, you could fiddle about on your own without your efforts being compared to how Facebook or Amazon does things, and reflects that we are all poorer for the results.

Dave counters that this process of the big kids changing place with the little kids turns like a big wheel, and that soon enough it will again be like it’s 1997 all over.  He pulls rank as an Old Fart of the Internet and assures us that he’s seen this all before, and that there’s always a group of people who want to “cook at home”, and there’s always people who, as he says, “would rather eat out,” and that in the long run, things will work out just fine.

But! Both arguments are proceeding from a shared core assumption.  That assumption is that at the end of any effort to create something new, you can find something that other people will find useful.  I guess In the world of successful Internet punditry, it only makes sense to pay attention to the winners, where every action is tied to a stated goal, where the requirements are documented ahead of time, finite resources are set aside, and  inspiration happens on a schedule.

But this is not the whole story.  In fact, I think that the more we screw around, the more likely we are to arrive at ideas that are truly world-changing.  

On one hand, the reason I’m bothering to post to this web site in the first place is to edit, narrow down, and purify my own ideas to the point that I can develop a plan for my own software project.  On the other hand, I would never have arrived at the ideas I have without spending an inordinate amount of time just screwing around with technology, without any particular outcome in mind.  What’s not recognized in the punditry of Dave Winer, et al. is that under all our clever technology ideas is a vast ocean of aimless activity.  This experimentation yields nothing at all most of the time, but in rare instances it becomes an engine of serendipity, and thereafter, invention.

Try selling that to a company that wants a budget and a plan for a shopping cart and a content-managed web site.  It ain’t gonna happen.  Dave himself says in his article, ”Imagine if Jackson Pollock had to convince a big company that his art was worth making. That’s why when everything is controlled by companies, we get stagnation.”  Indeed, Dave, but how many years did Pollock spend hanging out with Thomas Hart Benton painting murals before his talent purified to the point that his signature style even emerged?  Could he have said, at the outset, “I think I can realize a 5000% ROI if you pay me to delve into alcoholism for a decade while I dribble paint onto a canvas” – who funded that?  Did Jackson Pollock have a kickstarter?

My thinking on this subject is ongoing. How do you feel about this?


Accept it Before it Destroys You

I have set up a WordPress web site for my personal journal. This is it.

To some of my friends, this will come as a shock. It’s not so much the question of whether or not WordPress is a quality piece of software; in fact, its a great piece of software. It’s just that, for a long time, I blamed WordPress and its users for the failure of my old business, Gestalt, Inc. The fact that WP came into existence as I was trying to make a living in software was not a reason to disparage it, but I blamed it nonetheless because it served my clients’ purposes better than the tools I was selling them.

So it goes. The end of that sad chapter was three years ago, and it’s well past time to move past it. It’s time to look to the future. It’s time to use the most appropriate tools for the job. And, that job is to start giving form to some of the ideas in my head, which I thought I would be able to realize on my own, but so far, have not.

You see, Gestalt, Inc. was a company I created to build a tool for introspection and expression. It was something that could take your tens of thousands of ideas and data and help you to thread them into a coherent narrative. It was to be a tool for shared ideation that cut through the whirlwind of distractions, and yield insight and creative empowerment for everybody.

The ultimate lesson learned was that the price tag of the software development process that could fully realize this dream was very high. It was simple enough, I thought, to build a few e-commerce and corporate identity sites with a half-baked version of the final product, and try to apply the leftover balance of time, energy, and revenue towards the primary development project. After 11 years of attempting this, though, what I ended up with was a lot of e-commerce and corporate identity sites, and a lot of debt.

I still have that dream, along with a lot of experiences as an entrepreneur that have arguably made me a wiser person. But, before I try to realize it again, I’m going to spend some time organizing my own ideas into a coherent narrative. Hopefully, this will lead to some discussion, and thereon to an actual plan that I can use to do what I want. And, since I can’t use Gestalt to do this, I’ll just go ahead and use the next best thing that exists.