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.


The French Onion Soup Test for Futurism.

I appear to have started blogging again. This is for my own self, really, and so I cannot claim it will make sense to anyone else. Still: onwards. 

Like a tribe lost to civilization, I’ve worked for myself for so long I’ve developed my own language, and it’s mostly gibberish to everyone else. Then I lose track of which vocab is which, and end up confusing everyone. For all the poor souls who have heard me talk about The French Onion Soup Test recently, I apologize. Turns out that’s only a thing in my head.

But it might be useful for you, so here we are. The French Onion Soup Test started as a test for cookbooks. Should you find yourself leafing through a cookbook, thinking of buying it, turn to the recipe for French Onion Soup, and see how long it quotes for the caramelizing of the onions. As Tom Scocca wrote in Slate back in 2012, seeding this in my mind,  most cookbooks are total bullshitters when it comes to this. They’ll quote ten minutes, when it’s actually more than an hour. 

One cannot help suspect that the French Onion Soup test means that the recipe either hasn’t been tried by the author, or that they feel the need to sell it to the reader in some curious way. Which is weird, because you realize just how wrong the recipe is the first time you cook it. (French Onion Soup done right, by the way, takes all damn day. It is worth it, but…yeah…)

Anyway this, it turns out, is a really useful test for technology, and especially for thought-stopping jargon-nouns. Substitute “cook the onions for five minutes until they’re brown and softened” with “by using the Blockchain” or “utilizing the power of deep learning”, or whatever other Futurist product you find yourself examining, and you can possibly see the technique in action. Ask yourself, is this scenario passing the French Onion Soup Test or not? If not, maybe the whole cookbook is wrong.

For the record, Thomas Keller’s recipe is tremendous.


French Onion Soup

Augmentation Complex Systems Wearables

Right Effort, Right Interface

So here’s irony. If I stare straight ahead right now, all I can see are screens. My new desk, with my new monitor setup, takes up almost all of my field of view, and yet, as luxurious as this is, it’s lead me to hours at a time away from screens altogether.

Here’s the thing: while for some types of work, two (or, swoon, three) big monitors and some associated ergonomically enhancing desk set up would seem to be the thing, (see Multiple Screens and Devices in an Information-rich Environment, for example), I’m profoundly loathe to sit at a desk all day. I live in Southern California, and there’s sunshine I don’t want to miss out on.

Moreover the years of following a GTD practice have lead me to realize the power of breaking my work up into chunks of, so to say, right-thing, right-place, right time. Being able to escape one form of computing, and with it, the form of thinking that is implied and enforced by those tools, is a powerful technique.

At the same time, as a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m trying to pay attention, in a very active sense, to what I do as a daily practice in all parts of my life. Right now, it’s the Spring Practice Period at the San Francisco Zen Center, (I’m attending online from down here in LA), and the theme this season is Wise Effort. The associated meditations have me thinking on this anew, and from there, in part, on how much time I spend on my phone.

Every morning, for example, I take my daughter to school, and we stop off for coffee/steamed milk on the way. Too often have I caught myself engaging with Twitter rather than with her during those brief minutes, and that doesn’t require exquisite Zen training to uncover as not-ideal for either of us.

So for the past few weeks, I’ve been wrapping my phone up in a cloth, furoshiki-style, and putting it into my bag. The added friction of getting it out, unwrapping it, turning it back on, et-connecting-cetera, takes away the quick hit of checking notifications, and the inevitable in-suck from there. It works well.

So far, so digital-detox middle-aged-angst. But it has lead to something new.

I need to work on my 風呂敷 technique.

I need to work on my 風呂敷 technique.

Leaving my phone wrapped up is anxiety-driving, because while I know my own work schedule well enough, there’s always an ego-driven part of the brain that thinks I’m an air-traffic controller with a part-time heart surgery practice. Those neurons want me to check my inbox on a regular basis, just to make sure I’m not being called into action for something that has to happen right now now now. By, you know, something on Twitter.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This is bollocks, obviously, but it’s nonetheless an itch that needs to be scratched. Combine it with my podcast-listening habit, and you have two major drives pulling on me to unwrap the thing, so to pull it out every few minutes.

But I don’t. I’ve defaulted to my watch as my primary mobile platform. Podcasts I can get, after installing Outcast for Apple Watch, and the rest of my super urgent messages and pushes can be relied on to come through just fine. (Which is to say, never, as I’m not a coastguard).

Thus becalmed, my brain can get on with other stuff. And here’s the new thing. As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday as part of a thread started by the splendid @hondanhon by defaulting to a new, tiny, platform, I’m forced to use its features more deeply. Turns out, they’re really good: 

Many of my work tasks, it seems, are much better suited by combining the pens and paper of my choice with Siri-based interaction with my watch via AirPods. While my desktop machine has a whole monitor dedicated to my inboxes, Omnifocus, and calendar, and my weekly review is for sure a multiscreen activity, if I’m planning a talk, for example, I just need to send quick messages and drop reminders to myself. I can do that, and even some pretty nice long-form dictation into Evernote, from Siri. I’m both connected to my IT-ecosystem, and pleasingly untethered from it.

Is it the perfect platform for the entire day? No. But it does speak to an interesting trend. As my phone gets ever more powerful, there’s sometimes a feeling that it’s too powerful to be brought out without proper psychological preparation. It’s too moreish a device to just have in my pocket, and most of the time I have no operational need for it to be quick-draw holstered there either.

And also, voice interfaces are pretty good – the household menagerie of smart speakers speak to that already – and offer a new way of interacting that doesn’t require eyes or fingers. In the kitchen, or the bedroom, a quiet work to an Alexa is almost always cognitively appropriate to the computational task at hand.

That’s what I suppose I’m searching for here: matching an appropriateness of interface to the task, rather than matching my tasks to the interface I have in front of me: deciding what to do based on priorities other than what technology I am sat with. This could involve breaking habits I didn’t know I had. Or, at least, having to become aware of how much my available toolset shapes my thinking. Let’s see. Onwards.

Augmentation Futures Wearables

Possible Problems of Persona Politeness

One of my AIs is funnier than the other. This is proving to be a problem.

But first, consider how the amazing becomes normal very quickly. It feels like I’ve been using Siri on my phone my entire life, Siri on the iPad charging by my bed since forever, and Siri on my watch since last summer. I’ve not, of course. She’s only four years old this October. But nevertheless, as with any new life-spanning tech, she’s become background-banal, in a good way, remarkably quickly. Voice interfaces are, without a doubt, A Thing.

And so it is with Alexa, the persona of the Amazon Echo, living in my kitchen for the past fortnight. She became a completely integrated part of family life almost immediately. Walking into the kitchen in the morning, ten-month-old daughter in one hand, making my wife tea with the other, I can turn on the lights, listen to the latest news from the radio, check my diary, and order more milk, just by speaking aloud, then turn it all off again as I leave. It’s a technological sprezzatura sequence that never fails to make me smile. Thanks, Alexa, I say. Good morning.

But there’s the rub. Alexa doesn’t acknowledge my thanks. There’s no banter, no trill of mutual appreciation, no silly little, “it is you who must be thanked” line. She just sits there sullenly, silently, ignoring my pleasantries. 

And this is starting to feel weird, and makes me wonder if there’s an uncanny valley for politeness. Not one based on listening comprehension, or natural language parsing, but one based on the little rituals of social interaction. If I ask a person, say, what the weather is going to be, and they answer, I thank them, and they reply back to that thanks, and we part happy. If I ask Alexa what the weather is, and thank her, she ignores my thanks. I feel, insanely but even so, snubbed. Or worse, that I’ve snubbed her.

It’s a little wrinkle in what is really a miraculous device, but it’s a serious thing: The Amazon Echo differs from Siri in that it’s a communally available service. Interactions with Alexa are available to, and obvious to, everyone in the house, and my inability to be polite with her has a knock-on effect. My daughter is too young to speak yet, but she does see and hear all of our interactions with Alexa. I worry what sort of precedent we are setting for her, in terms of her own future interactions with bots and AIs as well as with people, if she hears me being forced into impolite conversations because of the limitations of her household AI’s interface. It’s the computing equivilent of being rude to waitresses. We shouldn’t allow it, and certainly not by lack of design. Worries about toddler screen time are nothing, compared to future worries about not inadvertently teaching your child to be rude to robots. 

It’s not an outlandish thought. I, myself, am already starting to distinguish between the personalities of the different bots in my life. Phone Siri is funnier than Watch Siri; Slackbot is cheeky, and might need reeducating; iPad Siri seems shy and isolated. From these personalities, from these interactions, we’ll take our cues. Not only in how to interact, but when and where, and what we can do together. If Watch Siri was funnier, I’d talk to her more. If Phone Siri was more pre-emptive, our relationship might change. And it’s in the little, non-critical interactions that their character comes through.

All this is, of course, easier said than done by someone who isn’t a member of the Amazon design team – hey there lab126, beers on me if you’re in LA soon – but there’s definitely interesting scope to grow for the seemingly extraneous stuff that actually makes all the difference. Personality Design for AIs. That’s a fun playground. Is anyone playing there?

Complex Systems Futures Wearables

Spectator Cockroaches, Sand, and the Social Facilitation of Skeuomorphs.

It was an experiment on cyclists in 1898 that first showed us how we might live with robots. It’s a really interesting observation. Let me tell you about it.

So. I love bots. Give me a pseudo-human interface, a smattering of natural language, and  a computery-voice, and I’m all yours. This year I’m working on a project to discover just how useful they can be. With wearables, and systems like Amazon Echo we’re about need to deal with a lot of these things, and it seems to me it’s not so much the technology as the user psychology that we need to pay the most attention to, and so we need to ask what we know about these things already. 

Discussing this with Dr Krotoski, my very local social psychologist, I was pointed to the seminal paper, The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition, by Norman Triplett, The American Journal of Psychology  Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jul., 1898) , pp. 507-533.

This is basically the ur-text of Social Psychology. You can read the original paper for details of the experiment, but the simplified conclusion was this: if a person is being watched, they find easy things easier, and harder things harder. It turns out, from other experiments, that this is true for many species. For example, cockroaches will find their way through mazes much more quickly if they have spectators too, (Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.)


A maze for cockroaches, with spectator seating.

A maze for cockroaches, with spectator seating.


Further research, specifically Social facilitation effects of virtual humans, Park, Hum Factors. 2007 Dec;49(6):1054-60, went on to the nub of it: “Virtual Humans” produce the same social facilitation effect. In other words, the presence of a bot will make simple things simpler, and hard things harder, simply by just being there “watching”.

This, it seems to me, is quite a big deal. If we’re designing systems with even a hint of skeuomorphic similarity to a conscious thing – even if it just has a smiley face and a pretty voice – it might make sense for it to ostentatiously absent itself when it detects the user doing something difficult. This might be the post-singularity reading of the Footprints In The Sand story, but nerd-rapture aside, it’s an interesting question: when is it best for context-aware technology to decide to disappear? When the going is easy, or when the going gets tough?

Furthermore, I’m not sure if we know yet the Uncanny Valley-like threshold of “humanness” that triggers the social facilitation effect: do cameras have the same effect? Or even just the knowledge that someone is surveilling you? But this has serious implications beyond AI design.

For example, the trend for the quantified workplace, where managers can gather statistical data on their employees’ activities, might be counterproductive, not simply because of the sheer awfulness of metrics, but because the knowledge they are being watched might make the more complex tasks that employee needs to do inherently more difficult, and hence more unlikely to be attempted in the first place.

For the most challenging tasks we face, the problems requiring the most cognitive effort, and the most imaginative approaches, we may find that many of our current social addictions – surveillance, testing, and so on, might be deeply harmful. “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” as Clippy would say, “would you like me to make that sub-conciously more difficult for you?” 

Complex Systems Futures

Future-Dense Sentences

There’s a technique for pondering emerging technologies that originated, I think, with Jamais Cascio. Imagine you’d been instantly transported back in time x years in a particular place. How many years would you have to have travelled before you noticed you had slipped back in time? What would give it away? People’s clothing? The music on the radio? Headlines on newspapers in the first papershop you come across? The cars, the phones people are carrying, the TVs you can see through the windows you pass? Sat where you are now, could you tell if you’d suddenly dropped back to 2006? 2001? 1989?

Ok, you’re on the internet, so that breaks that, but it’s a fun game to play if you travel a lot, and can be also quite revealing within institutional buildings. Applied to business processes or cultural values, it can uncover a good deal too. 

My variation on this is to look for the places, or the ideas, or the writing, that is the most future-dense. What sentences can we find that contains the most stuff that, were we to fall back in time only a few years, would make no sense whatsoever. What contains the most embedded understanding of wholly modern concepts. Here’s a good one, from this morning:

See what I mean? Go back ten years, and that would be crazy. Go back thirty years, and you’d have to start from such first principles, you’d be considered mad.

Here’s another from earlier this year, that at first glance reads, technologically at least, entirely, boringly, banal:

If you fell back thirty years to 1985, think of all the things about this screenshot you’d have to explain, and all the layers you’d have to fill in before you could. “Ok, so…[deep breath] the President of the United States is a black man named Barack Obama. Yes, really. This is a message he has left on a microblogging service on the web…ermmm, it’s a service based around a new hypertext protocol on the internet. Yes, that thing the scientists use. Kinda like a bbs, yes. But with a few billion users. Yes. Billion. With a B. Anyway, he’s saying he’s going to binge-watch a show on Netflix. Netflix? It’s a streaming video site…oh…well, it’s a place…errrrr…Retweets? Spoilers?…I…you know…I think we should drop it.”

Anyway, looking for these brings me to a couple of things. Firstly, it’s a useful koan-like personal thought experiment to find new insights around a place or an organisation or a cultural moment. At the very least, it’s entertaining.

But secondly, I think it raises, once again, the realisation that our future world is heavily, fundamentally layered: that problems have no simple solution that a single technology plonked on top will fix. Instead, it is the interplay of the complex systems – complex, not necessarily complicated – of culture, technology, politics, culture and so on that will come together to make tomorrow’s banal commonplace thing. That complexity, I think, is both deeply exciting, and – hopefully – humbling. The future is not about the tech. It’s perhaps the other way around.

Augmentation Futures Wearables

The Internet of Tells: Constant biomonitoring and some uses

In poker, they call them tells. The little physical signs that we can’t control that give away our inner mental state. What happens if we make these privately machine-readable?

For me, a lot of the fun of future technologies isn’t new tech per se, but the coming together of three or four older things, refined by new physical capabilities and design understandings, to push over the Hill of Single Use into a new valley of possible products. A strained metaphor, perhaps, so let me give you an example. Heart rate monitors have been around for years. I’ve been running with one strapped to my chest for at least a decade myself, and in those days the data has been restricted to its one single device (and later to a single app, barring the export of averages and such very high-level takes). You certainly didn’t wear an HR monitor all the time, and even if you did, you couldn’t use what it saw for anything other than athletic training.

But 2015 will see at least two products come to mass-market that might do such a thing. The Jawbone3, and the Apple Watch

The back of the Apple Watch, showing the HR monitor

The Apple Watch has an HR monitor on its back, has local processing, a data connection (and through that, infinite cloud processing) – but more than that, it has access to everything else we might do digitally, Not just publishing capability (send my HR to Facebook, Tweet when I go over 180, and so on) but a form of sense-making too. The complex network around the Apple Watch knows an awful lot about your personal context – that’s really its point after all – and so it could start to make all sorts of correlations between HR and that context.

We know that changes in HR can reflect changes in psychological state. Your heart beats faster when you’re aroused or stressed or angry. And we now have a device that can notice that tell, and try to work out what is causing it. What might that do? Here are some scenarios, and possible products:

  1. One to One. You regularly meet with someone, Mr X, who drives you insane. A deeply stressful person, who causes your heart to beat hard as you restrain yourself from violence. An asshole of the highest order. Your system detects the increase in heart rate, and sees it happens whenever you have a calendar appointment with Mr X. Matching the appointment data with LinkedIN, it identifies Mr X, and posts the “Meeting with Mr X is stressful” posit to a LinkedIN API-using offshoot, a “Rate My Meeting” clone. Over time, Mr X’s rating is further added to by others’ systems, perhaps without user input at all, flagging Mr X as (algorithmically designated) asshole. The system acts accordingly.
  2. Many to One. You walk to work down Oxford Street, but prefer to slip through side streets if the foot traffic is annoyingly dense. Luckily, the HR monitors on the wrists of tens of Apple Watch wearers already on Oxford Street are spiking higher than they usually average here, at this time of day, with this sort of weather. Your system notices this, and gently nudges you away from the area, pre-emptively avoiding the stress that others are giving away to the network.
  3. Many to Many. You’re at a concert, and having a splendid time. Your HR is rising as the music builds, and from your watch you can see that others in the crowd are feeling it too. The crowd average HR goes past 140…141…144….147…….149……and as soon as it reaches 150,  it triggers the drop, the stage pyros, the lasers, the dancing girls. The musicians onstage, able to reach their musical climax just as the audience reaches theirs. That’s showbusiness.

None of these use-cases, and there are many more, require a new magical technology. Apart from the actual heart-monitoring, you could prototype them today all quite (handwaving here) easily. But none of them would work without a good installed base of constantly available HR monitors already in place. That, if Apple and Jawbone and the rest get their way, is what we’re about to have. It’s a whole new product/service category, being unlocked almost by mistake.