Public notebook

Google Glass and design fictions for the present-future


A useful concept and an amazing talk… 

One thing we learned from Google’s I/O conference is how far Google Glass is from the promotional video that the company put out for its product, long before a usable protoype was available. The video was called “how it feels”, but was of course speculating about “how it would feel” to have something like Google Glass worked really well.

Time was when this sort of thing was called “vapourware“. In these strange days we could call it design fiction, a kind of prototype, a thought experiment, a projection of what will be or what might be.

Google Glass is not vapourware – it’s sort of here (just not evenly distributed). Glass is eliteware (or elitewear): an object of veneration by those who can almost grasp a pair and derision by everyone else who are either terrified by the realisation of , experiencing present-future shock or just jealous. It’s an odd, slightly pointless and profound conversation at the same time – there are important things wrapped up in it, but much of the noise is without usefulness. (Still it gave us White Men Wearing Google Glass, which is a joy…)

Google Glass may not be all that the ads made it out to be, but it is what is coming just a little way down the line. It’s what technology wants – to be attached to our faces and feeding live images into the machine, and useful signals right back to us… That or something – some things – like it.

In his brilliant, brief address to the start up community gathered at the NEXT conference in Berlin last week, Bruce Sterling talked about this idea of design fiction. His speech was intoxicating and disorientating, a bit like the present-future he keeps telling us we live in. By turns punching-you-in-the-gut and then telling you that the future, future-present belongs to them.

Design fictions are these thought-experiment/prototypes that try to incite insight or provoke adoption and rejection in the audience.

Sterling calls them “the deliberate us of diagetic prototypes to suspend disbelief.” Still getting my head around that one.

Referring to the theme of NEXT this year – “here be dragons” – Sterling also called design fictions “a process of creating dragons, letting them loose and seeing if they disrupt anything.”

I urge you to watch the whole of his 15 minute talk – it’s bloody brilliant – by turns inspiring, terrifying, clarifying and confusing. Feel the discomfort and curiosity in the room (and yourself) when he calls out the “tacit alliance” between the tech start-up sphere and the “off-shore financiers and money launderers who want to destroy the nation state and the middle class”…

There’s more here than you can fit into one blog post – much less this one.

“I’m not a political activist, I just know what’s going on,” he says… I think the power of what Sterling is doing here is asking the right questions, or pushing us all into asking them.

Further reading

Bruce Sterling cited these groups as using design fiction:


Also take a look at the NEXT blog post about reactions to talk with some links to really interesting posts about elements of his talk…

Via Adam Tinworth’s ever-thought provoking blog.


Public notebook

Why aren’t business books shorter?


Image: Could some of these be shorter?   

Why are nonfiction books, business books in particular not shorter? Or available to buy in sections or by the chapter?

In their book Big Data: A Revolution… – my most quoted of the last few months – Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger discuss the huge, unexploited stores of data Amazon has about how we read.

Despite Amazon’s Kindle e-book readers’ being capable of showing whether a certain page has been heavily annotated and underlined by users, the firm does not sell that information to authors and publishers. Marketers would love to learn which passages are most popular and use that knowledge to sell books better. Authors might like to know where in their lofty tomes most readers give up, and could use that information to improve their work. Publishers might spot themes that herald the next big book. But Amazon seems to leave the field of data to lie fallow.

One insight from an Amazon competitor in the US has prompted the firm to start producing shorter nonfiction books:

Barnes & Noble’s analysis of data from its Nook e-book reader revealed that people tended to quit long nonfiction books midway through. That discovery inspired the company to create a series called “Nook Snaps”: short works on topical themes such as health and current affairs.

Amazon Singles is effectively the same proposition – and it appears to be successful – having sold almost five million downloads since it started in early 2011. It’s a money-spinner for some authors apparently, while others see it as a way to break into the literary world.

But will it become the norm? More popular than longer form

The short-form non-fiction book really makes sense. Anecdotally I half-finish, or third-finish a lot of nonfiction books. It’s not that they are bad, just that you feel like you have got everything you need after the first ten or twenty thousand words (a full-length book is typically 60,000 words or more).

When I wrote Me and My Web Shadow, it really felt like three shorter books – a theory of online reputation, a how-to guide and a set of manuals for various online tools and social networks.

Now that I am looking a second edition and  a possible new book square in the eyes, I think that a series of shorter

And yet…

And yet… people still buy the longer books. Unlike music, they don’t yet seem to want the singles. At least not yet.

I think that what it will take for the short-form e-book market to take off is longer books being published with an accompanying series option – either preceding, simulataneously launched or

From an author’s point of view the serial ending in a complete book is the best option. Each section will be more current, more immediately available and can be amended up to the point that the paper or complete ebook is published.

Public notebook

Is this the real life?: Connectedness makes IRL all the sweeter


Image: Is he in the real world?

In an essay for The New Inquiry, called “The IRL FestishNathan Jurgenson picks away at ideas like “online” and “offline” and the sense of virtue we often seem to attach to IRL (In Real Life).

Jurgenson argues that if moments of being disconnected feel more real and vital, maybe it precisely because we are connected most of the time that we are appreciating them…

The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity. We savor being face-to-face with a small group of friends or family in one place and one time far more thanks to the digital sociality that so fluidly rearranges the rules of time and space. In short, we’ve never cherished being alone, valued introspection, and treasured information disconnection more than we do now. Never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.

It reminds me of one of those “a year without the internet” (or a day, or week, or a month experiments) articles. For the first few weeks the experimenter felt liberated, looked at life differently, felt like they were better somehow. Then the novelty faded and they felt normal. Then they felt bored and disconnected from their life. Paul Miller – a journalist who spent a year offline – describes his experience:

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

So why are people talking about “offline”, digital diets, screen sabbaths? Jurgenson thinks we are suffering from what sounds to me like a mixture of confusion and nostalgia:

In great part, the reason is that we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. That is, disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn’t really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom.

There is also a sense of caution amongst people, of noticing how immersed we are in the windows into the great machine of the web, and pulling back slightly. If not slowing down our headlong charge into the connected age, abstention, “going offline” is a gesture toward slowing down, a comforting habit, like a heavy drinker who has one day off a week, partly to show themselves they can still do it.

Pushing back against always-on connected life is also about figuring out a workable framework for using the web well in our lives.

It helps me to wind down before bedtime to switch off devices, to slow down my use of the web (much as I drink less coffee and don’t eat a large meal before going to sleep). I try to delay the moment I first open a browser, an app or an inbox after I wake, to let myself start the day with a little less urgency, to think about things a little before I start inviting things to happen to me.

Sometimes. Sometimes it works like that. Other times I do it differently – partly this is a lack of discipline, partly that I am playing with different ways of living in the connected world. Working out what works.

A binary argument about “online” and “offline” is not helpful – connectedness is not all good or all bad. It has a mixture of benefits and drawbacks and we are learning how to live well online.

The polarised positions people take in this debate are down to what Kahneman calls “the affect heuristic“. When we like something, feel good about it, we exaggerate the benefits and play down the negatives. When we dislike something, we all but ignore the upside and overplay the pitfalls.

If we are able to be rational about it, we can see the upside of being connected, acknowledge the dangers and work to mitigate them.

We’ll get there. But not with out some blustering and blunders…

HT to Ross Breadmore