Augmentation Futures Wearables Writing

ReadyBrek, AR, and Flirting in the age of Corona

If you grew up in the UK in the 1980s, you’ll know this image. It’s from a TV advert for a breakfast cereal called Ready Brek. It’s porridge, but much more finely milled, so it’s ready to eat as soon as you add the milk. It is unredeemingly grim, as are their adverts. I mean, I’m not saying that this part of my childhood is why I’ve spent most of my adulthood in Mediterranean climates, but watch this:

If this makes you nostaligic, you’re insane.

Anyway, the red outline to the child, denoting a belly full of carbohydrate mush to fuel their way through the Thatcherite dystopia, is actually a pretty good bit of user interface when applied to the present day unpleasantness.

We know that Apple have AR glasses coming to market in the next year or so. From this sort of reporting and this and this. And despite the social nightmare of the forward facing camera that contributed to the Google Glass fiasco, AR glasses rely on forward facing sensors of some form. It’d be easy – trivial, in fact – to overlay a social distancing guide to your field of view. And maybe a bit trickier, but still thereabouts, for a forward facing IR camera to overlay anyone running an obvious fever with a ReadyBrek outline.

Apple, of course, have a patent for technology that would do this very thing​*​.

The social practices that might come from exposing feverishness without contact, or from actually giving a genuine measure of the six-foot social distancing radius, are interesting to consider. After it becomes a matter of etiquette and good social graces to keep a distance, the violation of that boundary can be either an act of extreme aggression, or one of subtle intimacy: the On peut se tutoyer of public space. Or perhaps something more flirtatious. After all, fans, which given the unpleasantness of wearing a facemask in the summer, are due a comeback, have a long tradition of signaling and seductive language. Tiny breaches of the 6 foot boundary will take on their own greater meanings, while the unveiling of the lower half of the face becomes the most private of moments.

  1. ​*​
    One of the dark secrets of the Futurist trade is that people generally announce their plans well in advance. Whether in patent applications or political manifestos, most people are quite open about what they’re going to do – even people who you might think would want to keep their Evil Plan secret. At a rough guess, 99.5% of all punditry is just special pleading around this: “Surely they won’t do what they’re plainly said they will?” Yes, yes they will.

Weeknotes, October 22


Everything finds its right time. And despite the fact I’ve been writing online for more than 20 years, and have been running my own business for nearly nine, I’ve never been able to settle into the habit of writing about what I’m working on as I’m doing it. While I’ve known for years that Weeknotes, for example, are profoundly useful for both the reader and the writer, hooo boy have I found myself stuck in the paralyzing gap between neuroses, trigger-shyness, and pressing deadlines.

But now it feels right to start. If the gap between posts gets too large, feel free to give me a nudge. Hey, say hi anyway. Hi! I’m

Slowing it Down with Pencils and Cameras.

According to the specialists, I have pretty enthusiastic ADHD.

“We place people with these disorders on a spectrum, Ben. Neurotypical people are here. People with difficulties in school here. People who are usually in prison are here. And you? You’re waaaay over here. Sooooo…Whatever you’re using to compensate, you should keep doing that. But also: drugs!”

It’s of a type that’s been, frankly, kinda useful for my life — though which caused what is an interesting debate — as it’s a subtype that invokes hyper-noticing and connection-making. For a journalist who became a futurist and strategic consultant, the ability to see things and make connections between them that other people have yet to is, well, very useful. People do (you can too!) employee me for this skill. But also as a journalist, and someone who has bashed his head against a desk in the writing of five books and millions of printed words, I have always struggled with the point of the process where I have to get the insight out of my own head and into my client’s. Since my proper diagnosis, I’ve been purposefully working with some practices that genuinely help. Alongside meditation, the one that seems to really help is a return to paper. Introduced to Christina Wodtke’s Pencil Me In by Dan Hon in his excellent newsletter I’ve been taking the time to work first on paper, with sketching, away from screens. It slows me down considerably, not least in the act of concentrating on making my letters legible — drawing them, not writing them — but that seems to work wonders for my attention.

When I added in the habit of printing out all my daily news briefing emails — shrunk down to 4 pages to a sheet — reading those over breakfast with no devices, and pushing the wake-up-to-screen-on time back even just another 30 minutes, my brain, and the rest of the day, is a much happier place.

That’s all very well for work in isolation, but a lot of my work is collaboration. Not a problem. At a morning at the theatre with my daughter to see the puppeteer Tom Lee’s “Tomte” I saw him use the Ipevo v4K Here it is on my desk:

IMG_2343 2.jpeg

Because it’s a camera, I can use it as a scanner and all that. But more excitingly, I can switch to it in video conferencing apps, and sketch my thoughts right in front of people. I’m finding it’s *really*really*good* to do this on video conference calls. Especially with software developers when you’re explaining just what you’d like them to build. I’m building something. I’ll tell you more next week.


I’m writing this at homebase in Brooklyn, but tomorrow I’m flying to London for work with Sainsbury’s, and the Friday I’m onto Bangkok where I am giving a keynote at the Digital Thailand Big Bang. My talk is called “Everything Silicon Valley Says About Innovation Is Wrong”.

I should pack. Thank you for your attention.


Competence Porn

Originally Published in British Airways Business Life magazine in September 2019

I’m moving house right now, and so my thoughts have turned to porn. Now, now. Wait a second. Not the regular kind, or even the location-location-location sort that comes with getting onto the mailing lists of real estate agents in the new city a few thousand miles away from the old. Instead, it’s Competence Porn. Because while I type this, all of our worldly possessions are being wrapped and packed by three very nice Angelenos who are good, but not nearly as good as the Japanese moving company employees I am watching on YouTube to keep myself from interfering with their work.

Competence Porn is the genre of footage found all over YouTube that shows people being low-key awesome at something. Exhibiting skills so profound that they elevate seemingly regular jobs, or even commonplace daily activities, to levels of artistry you’ve never imagined, all while giving an air of being entirely unstressed by the effort. It is profoundly calming. Renaissance-era Italians had a word for this: sprezzatura, and the Japanese moving firms videos are my go-to dose when things are getting too much in real life. Watching them bow before they enter a house, removing their shoes, lining the walls and falls with scuff-protecting panels, then individually wrapping everything in custom-made boxes perfectly shaped for the items at hand, and packing every cupboard into boxes designed so that they can be unpacked into similar cupboards at the destination address with everything in the same exact place, well, it is so profoundly good, so profoundly pleasing, so profoundly moving in its competence that it puts the world back on its axis. Nothing can be truly hopeless when such people exist.

It’s not just movers that can claim full Competence Porn status. There are videos from a Chicago-based art restoration company, Baumgartner Restoration, that are the CP equivalent of mainlining heroin. There are whole sections of YouTube dedicated to professional car-detailers that will sooth your soul. Sugarcraft, metal tool restoration, even the guys who unblock drains for a living have spawned accounts with millions of subscribers who find deep solace in footage of skilled craftsmen using high-pressure jets to dislodge chunks of badness from pipes. And I am one of them, I must admit. I could give up watching these things any time I want, I would say to myself at 3am, just after this one more.

As soothing and as world-righting as it is, Competence porn-addiction is not without its potential downsides. Much as some blame media images of unobtainable physical perfection – on the fashion pages, or the covers of men’s protein-shakes’n’pseudo-science magazines – as a contributing factor to many peoples’ low self-esteem, there is the risk that an over consumption of images of profound ability might lead to you never trying to do anything, on the basis that you are currently terrible, or a paralysis of profound disappointment when you encounter the real thing and it’s not as good as the TV version. This is especially so when the CP is the fictional sub-genre. For example, I’ve personally worked with very senior government officials in three countries, and the realization that none of them were anywhere close to the West Wing’s Leo McGarry (the OG of stand-and-salute fictional-CP scenes) was profoundly disillusioning. This isn’t an uncommon example, according to both Westminster and Washington lore.

But it is the former issue that is perhaps the more serious. Ira Glass, the American radio producer and presenter whose style has influenced a whole generation of broadcasters and, especially, podcasters, calls it the Taste Gap. “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.” He has said, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”

We are left with a real choice here. On the one hand, we can see profound mastery as an unobtainable state. One to be admired, or one to dash our hopes against, but either way a thing that is not for us. Or we can better see it as rather just the current situation of someone who is simply further along on the same journey as we are. Today’s generation of innovation experts and personal efficacy coaches have a name for this: the Growth Mindset. This is the way of thinking that says that with the correct application of proper effort, you can absolutely become the person as skilled as want to be, and that your current slightly-rubbish state is a necessary part of that path. Personal growth, and innovation at every level from the private to the corporate to the national depends on this mindset, and for the sake of the rest of the century, we should practice it. As I am, right now, getting to the good bit: the special box for televisions. It’s like a dream.



Originally Published in British Airways Business Life magazine in September 2019

The tiniest movements make all the difference. At least that was what I heard when my wife threatened to burn my glasses if I wore them near her again. These aren’t ordinary glasses, of course. They’re the new Focals by North, which with a combination of a special material embedded inside the lens, a very finely tuned laser projector in the frame, and some delicate fitting, look just like regular glasses but give me a heads-up display of pertinent information. I press the little switch on a ring on my right pointer finger, and a display hovers in the middle of my field of view. The time, or the weather forecast, or how close the Uber I just called is, or the walking directions to my next meeting. They are, in private, on my own, really cool. But if I wear them in the house it all goes downhill very quickly. Because although the display only pops up a few words at a time, and right in the middle of my field of view, my eyes subtly shift. It’s only a matter of a millimeter for a few milliseconds, if that, but it’s enough for someone to notice. 

It isn’t the gross rudeness of ostentatiously taking my phone out from my pocket in the middle of dinner, or pushing back a cuff to look at my watch during a meeting, and certainly not the combination movement of looking at my watch, then swiping around on its face while apologetically looking back at my conversant as if nothing is happening. It’s just a brief flicker, a saccade, a tiny taking in of the new knowledge and then a return to the present moment. But somehow it enrages far more. In trying to hide, or at least deemphasize the physical impact of, these little informational exchanges on the people around me, these new, more personal interfaces seem to actually make things worse. And certainly angrier.

This isn’t because the alerts I’m getting are trivial. It’s not Twitter, or some faux-important news blast of celeb gossip. Those little pop-ups of information are genuinely life-improving. Knowing that it’s about to start to rain (apps like Dark Skies are almost minute-perfect in this), or that the traffic is getting worse between here and my next appointment, or being able to see texts from a very small list of people I’ve configured it to allow through immediately are all features that have made small but meaningful improvements to my life today alone.

No, the issue seems to be much more immediate than that. It’s not the nature of the information that seems to upset people, nor really the fact that they can’t see it – they can’t see my more regular screens either – but the idea that I have a secret backchannel to the universe. 

Augmenting my consciousness with a display that, through a network of connections each entirely simple, reaches out to the tiny spaceships that are watching the clouds nearby, and then allows me to know privately that it’s going to start to rain in 90 seconds is as close to magic as you can get. Someone who had that knowledge a decade ago would have been a savant. A century, a fee-charging curiosity. A millennium ago, burnt as a witch. It’s not surprising that others find it indescribably unnerving.

There seems to be something curious that happens when we take our information closer and closer to our personal experience of the world. New interfaces, like head-up displays, or vibration alerts from watches, or private languages of subtle beeps and tunes from omnipresent airpods, exist to do this: to give us information in a way that bypasses the need to read something from a screen, and instead insert new information directly into our consciousness in the same way as the smell from the kitchen, or the tune from an ice-cream truck does. Without a conscious interpretive step. It’s weirdly unnerving for other people, and we don’t yet have a language to either describe it, or a way to develop an etiquette around it.

But as our devices and our environment become more connected, the possibility to have, say, a special alert pattern of vibrations from your watch triggered by your partner arriving home, and for that alert pattern to be so familiar a thing that we don’t so much notice it happening as just know they are there, is deeply interesting. My glasses still trigger a tiny moment of taking-in and processing, but soon that process could become more and more second nature. 

In one way of putting it, a connoisseur is someone who has trained their consciousness to a experience a greater knowledge of the nature of something – wine, coffee, art, whatever – in a way that they cannot explain, but can access. Perhaps the next stage of computing is to make us all like this. Aware of the world around us in whole new ways, but through interfaces we can’t really describe. It won’t be a world of screens. I can just feel it.