Dark Matter: 7 November 2017

This week in the whole of the Web is a Swans album:

If you read only one thing this week — Christ, if you read only one thing this year — make it James Bridle’s sprawling, brilliant, terrifying essay on recombinant content created for an ephemeral, phantom audience of children and bots, ‘Something is wrong on the internet’ (21min). To excerpt:
Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.
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Piling on, part one: Parimal Satyal on what he calls ‘an Increasingly User-Hostile Web’ (22min, HT to Anjali for the link). Satyal lays out a Cluetrain-inspired takedown of the transformation of the open web into something decidedly more sinister with built-in profit motives. He illustrates this elegantly with a page load analysis of a Le Monde article on the launch of a space probe. To wit:
94% of the data being transferred and 99% of the requests being made have nothing to do with the article itself. Le Monde might principally be a newspaper in its printed version, but the online version is an invasive, insecure advertising platform with good content (in that order).
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Piling on, part two: André Staltz brings unfettered joy and delight with every word of his essay on net neutrality and the death of the Web (13min):
The internet will survive longer than the Web will. GOOG-FB-AMZN will still depend on submarine internet cables (the “Backbone”), because it is a technical success. That said, many aspects of the internet will lose their relevance, and the underlying infrastructure could be optimized only for GOOG traffic, FB traffic, and AMZN traffic. It wouldn’t conceptually be anymore a “network of networks”, but just a “network of three networks”

This week in the loneliness of the long-distance marketer:

When the night is dark and full of terrors, look to Martin Weigel for sunshine and rainbows. This, on bravery and folly (4min), is spectacular:

Exhorting clients to be ‘brave’ enough to buy ‘brave’ work is not just poor psychology. It misrepresents and undermines creativity, passing it off as some roll of the dice, or reckless shot in the dark in which the possibility of total failure is deeply embedded. Yet if we look at what makes for effective work we see that it entails eschewing category norms and conventions, being distinctive and interesting not merely relevant, evoking visceral reactions, and leaving behind long-term memory traces.

None of this is being ‘brave’. It’s not embracing of failure. It’s not reckless. It’s just prudent, effective brand-building. And so if as Nils Leonard has put it: “There is no such thing as creative bravery, only true creativity”, then the most foolhardy, risk-embracing and reckless thing a marketer can possibly do is to pursue the safe, the tried-and-tested, the formulaic, the unremarkable, and the unoriginal.

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I’ve posted other things like this before, but bookmark this one: Holly Allen — Director of Engineering at 18F — has published a very short, succinct guide to giving constructive feedback (1min). The broader 18F document archives on Github are a brilliant, well-recommended rabbit hole.

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Daniel Burka’s post on the value of fake designs (5min) set off a wave of Twitter threads over the last several days. You’ve probably seen it pop up in your feed. If not, remedy that. This, from Geoff Teehan, felt especially real:

In the early days of Teehan+Lax, we didn’t have a good body of work to show. Made up projects helped us build skill and reputation.​

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Mary Poppendieck has written a terribly smart piece on corporate accounting practices around IT — a reexamination of IT-as-cost-center vs. profit center in the age of agile (8min). It’s much recommended and worthy of broad internal circulation at your place of employment. A gem I particularly liked:

the cost center trap and the capitalization dilemma both create a chain reaction: Accounting drives metrics -> Metrics drive culture -> Culture eats process for lunch.​


This week in more product, less process:

Via Dan Hon, destroyer of worlds:

  1. If you type the letter “i” and it autocorrects to an “A” with a symbol, by the Apple Support team
  2. A fake WhatsApp update in the Google App store with a single added unicode space in the name
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21st-century camouflage as hostile architecture: even yet still more 3D adversarial objects, designed to fool visual classification systems (2min).

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You had me at ‘sort by depth’: the Cooper Hewitt Collection search functionality and filters (years, potentially) is the rabbittyist of all rabbit holes.

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I’ve only now found the Sleeping in Museums tumblr. Perhaps you found it sooner.

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I’m a bit late to the BBC’s Inspection Chamber (3min) — a piece of interactive audio fiction developed for use with Alexa. Give it a quick read. Lost in the promise of unnuanced search results and frictionless shopping is the capacity for some really fascinating storytelling models.

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Patrick Tomasiewicz pointed me at James Somers’ fantastic piece for The Village Voice on the archives of the New York City Public Library (6min) — keepers of private letters and records from Lou Reed to Ezra Pound. Please give it a few minutes of your time, if only for the brilliant final paragraph:

Lannon talked about how books like these weren’t the work of one person. “Knowledge is a sort of social production,” he said—made by scholars who meet each other, if not literally in rooms like this one, then across time through the work that’s left there. It struck me that there would be lots more shelves filled this way, each book, in its turn, the fruit of old boxes, well cared for, waiting to be found.


Jobs for Misfit Toys:

18F is hiring a Feedback Analytics Engineer (please, read the amazing description), and is open to remote work. This is a ridiculously great job for the right person. Apply soon: applications close on Friday.

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3D Printing company Markforged — good products, ridiculously smart peoples — is hiring a Product Marketing Manager in Boston. Also a very interesting role for the right person.

Until next week.

Dark Matter: 12 October 2017

More than 325 of you clicked the link in last week’s Dark Matter to Unidos por Puerto Rico. I’m hoping that many of you were able to assist their work with a donation. Thank you. I am floored.

If you’ve not yet donated to their mission — and are able to do so — I hope you’ll consider it. For a readership invested in learning about services, networks, empathy, and infrastructure, it’s worth remembering that many Puerto Ricans woke up this morning with minimal access to any of these.

On to the soft underbelly of the Interwebs:

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This week in interrobangs and sarcmarks:

It feels like the right cultural moment for Daniel Little’s post on traits of resilient communities (6min). Little outlines three kinds of ‘“shock absorbers” working to damp down the slide towards antagonism‘, namely:
  1. the existence of cross-group organizations and partnerships among organizations originating in the separate groups
  2. person-to-person relationships across groups (through neighborhoods, places of work, or family relations)
  3. policing and law enforcement as an important buffer against the escalation of ethnic or religious tensions
What’s true of communities and cultures writ large is also true of user communities that spring up around the products and services we create. Central, then, is not just the capacity to connect with one another, but to form horizontal communities that bind user groups together, buffered by real community moderation and management.
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By increasing awareness of unused punctuation marks, we hope to begin a discussion about the present and future states of our writing, and eventually integrate the marks into our language, ending misunderstandings and misinterpretations once and for all.

(HT to Colin Raney for the link)

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From a Wharton School interview with Andrew Essex (7min) — late of the Tribeca Film Festival, later of Droga:

We used to have this bizarre model in which you’d watch a show and there would be these arbitrary interruptions for messages from brands that you didn’t ask to see. That model just doesn’t make sense anymore. People look down at their phones. They don’t want to see things they didn’t ask to see. Brands have to be the thing, not the thing that interrupts the thing.

Not a terribly new sentiment, but well-articulated for sure. Read the whole piece. Closely-related, this chart on the opportunity space for attention courtesy of The IPA.

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Superflux has all the films. I’m partial to “Our Friends Electric”:

The film explores our developing relationship with voice activated AI assistants, and the future potential of these relationships through three fictional devices.

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Worth having set in cross-stitch, framed, and sent to every founder you can think of — Fred Hersch on Thelonious Monk (3min) for The Paris Review:

Some pianists feel obligated to play Monk Monkishly: they use his pianistic devices and play loudly. I go at it by looking at the sheet music or learning his tunes by ear, I try to take his own playing out of the equation and just look at the musical DNA in the composition itself. Then I put it through my personal pianistic filter. You can’t compete head-on with Monk, you have to be sneakier about it.

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This week in the trying to unleash the hypno-drones:

Taylor Pearson for Ribbonfarm, taking Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and running with a vision for the decentralized knowledge worker of the near future (14min):

The Blockchain Man’s career will look like a combination of a lifestyle business owner and free agent. The metaphor of a “career ladder” with its linear, upward sloping path worked well with the corporate pyramid. In a world dominated blockchains, careers will transform into something more like Sheryl Sandberg’s career jungle gym where each crossbar of the gym may represent a blockchain. This will result in a career for The Blockchain Man alternating between project sprints and periods of unemployment or mini-retirements, much like Hollywood operates today.

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All the kids are playing Frank Lantz’s new game, Paperclips in which “you play an AI that makes paperclips”.

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Rodney Brooks’ piece for the Tech Review on seven kinds of common errors in predicting artificial intelligence futures (12min) is an absolutely essential bit of reading (HT to Tim Malbon for the link). This, over and over and over:

When people hear that machine learning is making great strides in some new domain, they tend to use as a mental model the way in which a person would learn that new domain.

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The incomparable James Bridle in a brilliant essay on self-driving cars and the culture that springs from them (9min):

The self-driving car is in fact a fantastic example of this tendency. It is, properly regarded, the opposite of autonomous… It must continually re-examine and revise its view of the world, adapting to and learning from its environment and the experiences of other vehicles. Its perceived intelligence is always and utterly a networked intelligence.

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A reminder of the Internet we grew up with: Roger Water is a lush, VR-lite, digital world, created for the band Niagara, that responds to both keyed and audio prompts (via your device’s microphone). Spend a few minutes exploring it.

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Thrill seeking meets strict adherence to code: playing the knife game with a robotic arm.

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Somewhere between a Disney ride and Metallica powered psy-ops against Noriega: Ear Hack Shooter appears to be a device for projecting sounds (2min) — a swarm of bees, an alarm, presumably the weaponized music of Steely Dan — within earshot of an unsuspecting other.

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Arielle Kuperberg has written a blistering piece for Scatterplot on declining Western marriage rates and the flawed argument that a hypersexed culture is a disincentive to marriage (7min). Her argument is an economic one:

The solution is not to tell women to shut their legs, or to make birth control more expensive. The solution is to build an economy in which young adults can get established in stable, well-paying jobs. The solution is to build opportunity. If the opportunity is there, marriage rates will follow.

Read the whole piece. It’s quite good.

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This week in Betterment is not Fidelity, friends:

Ross Breadmore has written a very smart, eminently-shareable piece on getting started with Causal Loop Diagrams (4min), which should absolutely be part of your arsenal. Circulate liberally, friends.

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Bot Ad School is a bot built into Facebook Messenger that’s likely to be nearly as comprehensive as your typical advanced comms degree. Nice work by DanielKostiaKate, and Sam.

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“Leaders need to know how to amplify differences, work with passionate people and deal with creative abrasion, and the conflict that will come from that,” she says. “It requires a completely different leadership mindset to take advantage of these types of (artificial intelligence) platforms. It’s not about being visionary (6min). Hierarchical cultures actually make it harder to take advantage of the benefits.”

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Chris Bolman has been drinking heavily from the cup of Sharp/Ehrenberg, and has a brilliant post on narrative myths around startup disruption and scale (7min):

big brands don’t get disrupted by startups, they get disrupted by the few startups that become big brands themselves (faster than an incumbent can buy them).

Read the whole piece. HT to Gareth Kay for the link.

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I loved Shefali Roy’s brief notes from her keynote talk (3min) at the Ada’s List Conference last week. Spend a few minutes with both her post and the Ada’s List team, who are doing wonderful work in building a stronger community for women in tech.

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Jobs for Misfit Toys:

Allow me to be the last person to tell you that you should definitely, absolutely quit your job and move to London to work for Ben Malbon at Google.
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Adam Simon’s team at the IPG Media Lab in New York is hiring a Lab Strategist. It’s a pretty great role, with a top team, and a rather distinguished list of alumni. Seems tailor made for avid readers of the Dark Matter.
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Until next week, friends.

Dark Matter: 4 October 2017

Nicolas Nova shared a highlight this week from a printed copy of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Tsing, Swanson, Gan, Bubandt). This quote feels very much of our collective present:

How can we repurpose the tools of modernity against the terrors of progress to make visible the other worlds it has ignored and damaged? Living in a time of planetary catastrophe thus begins with with a practice at once humble and difficult: noticing the worlds around us.

I was reminded at once of the above photo of my great grandfather, taken in about 1946 outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. Samuel Fitzpatrick was an automotive man — a supply chain and infrastructure guy — with a home in suburban Detroit and a remit to build a South American foothold for American truck manufacturers. His world was very much one defined by the tools of modernity, and — as evident here — the humble practice of engagement with the world around him.

Not entirely unrelated: my friend Maru, born and raised not far from the spot where this photo was taken, writes this week:

It is said that the coquí, a small toad native to Puerto Rico, can only sing on Puerto Rican soil. The same can be said of the diaspora. We’re heartbroken.

If you’ve not yet acted on this, our most recent planetary catastrophe, Maru tells me that Unidos por Puerto Rico is the organization to donate to. I’ve done so, and would encourage readers to do the same, if you’re able.

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Begin here:

You should absolutely, positively read Sakari Tamminen’s piece for EPIC on the urgency for contemporary anthropologists to challenge the lazy understanding of relationships between power and technology (9min)— tropes deeply embedded in great science fiction and storytelling that all too easily creep into more formal research. To wit:

And as the social scientists of humankind, we anthropologists need critique to explore and unearth the problems that technology might create. Yes, there might exist unfair value propositions that put us in an uneven, asymmetric power position with powerful companies that want to tie us into their much tighter, technologically enabled networks. Yes, there might be technologies that take away our freedom by enabling large-scale surveillance at individual level. And yes, there might be algorithms that do not work every time, everywhere, and for everybody. More than ever there is a role for critique, but we should not conflate political critique with flawed claims about humanity and technology. It is irresponsible to advance lazy arguments that can be disregarded as untrue and un-actionable.

Next time when you feel that so-called critical thinking urge come alive, ask yourself three questions: How do my critical thinking faculties shape my approach to field research and how I seek human truths in the experience of technology? How do I shape what I have learned about humans and technology into insights that can inspire a culturally valuable point of view? How can I participate in shaping more culturally sensitive and, ultimately, valuable experiences for people using technology?

Answer those questions without hitting an existential technology panic button and you are well on your way.

The same challenge likely applies to the stories brands tell — and the stories many of us tell about/for/with them. Read the whole piece.

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This week in fading memories of compression artifacts:

Spend a few minutes with Yagmur Karakaya and Jacqui Frost’s brief history of nostalgia research (3min), published in The Society Pages. Psychologist Jennifer Twenge, quoted in the piece and breaking a million hearts primed by Tom Brokaw to espouse the contrary:

The aim of generational study is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.

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From Scientific American’s fantastic Workplace Anthropology series, this question: Why does the departure of a key team member serve as the catalyst for turnover? (8min) This, in particular, rings true:

If we view embeddedness as the links that an employee has to others and to the organization, embeddedness can tell us how well the employee fits within her peer group or team (e.g., do they have the skills to get their tasks done well, do they get along with their peers, is their relationship complementary?) A highly embedded employee will believe that she is a good fit within the organization and has the tools and skills to get her tasks done, whereas a low embedded employee will not. For a highly embedded employee, the prospect of leaving the relationships she has established can act as a deterrent.

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All the stripey-shirted Flash 5 fanboys will remember James Paterson, whose work was as much a hallmark of early 2000’s online animation as 2Advanced intros. His new creation, Norman (3min), is a javascript framework that enables the development of browser-based 3D animations using VR controllers. Click through to see it in action, because it’s ridiculously good.

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Matt Webb asks all the good questions (3min) — this time about the patina of photo compression as artifact of legitimacy in a hyper-constructed digital and social world:

Wonder which version of the iPhone will have a computational photography mode to create pre-distressed selfies, for that already-shared look.

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Tip of the hat to Jefferson Burruss for pointing me to ArterBarter. Think: One Red Paperclip meets Steve Keene.

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Molly Fischer’s profile of poet Rupi Kaur for The Cut makes for brilliant reading. A choice cut:

She is, deeply and truly, a poet of Instagram: In the manner of that medium, her work is human experience, tidily aestheticized and monetized, rendered inspirational and relatable in perfect balance. Her poems are, for the most part, short enough to fit easily in Instagram’s square frame, and her sentiments general enough to be universally recognizable.

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This week in training bots to make machines to train bots to:

Detect.Location is a GitHub project from KrauseFx that will absolutely change the way you consider the seemingly innocuous app requests to access your phone’s photo library. From the project README:

Does your iOS app have access to the user’s image library? Do you want to know your user’s movements over the last several years, including what cities they’ve visited, which iPhones they’ve owned and how they travel? Do you want all of that data in less a second? Then this project is for you!

Tip of the hat to Avi Cieplinski.

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So what you’re saying is that I can upload a bot version of my Facebook self to the Matrix?

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Peter Bihr has a really interesting post on the intersection of AI, IoT and (mostly) education policy (6min) that’s worth reading, particularly if you work in/at/with institutional teams.

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Everything commoditizes and miniaturizes: first, we get Teachable Machine, an introduction to using training data that’s simple enough to use with young kids. Then, something even more interesting:

deeplearn.js is an open source hardware-accelerated JavaScript library for machine intelligence. deeplearn.js brings performant machine learning building blocks to the web, allowing you to train neural networks in a browser or run pre-trained models in inference mode.

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Mkomazi (7min) is a fascinating project: embedding sensors in the horns of rhinos to monitor herds and ensure the security of a protected space in Tanzania, keeping poachers at bay. The project runs entirely on solar power, and uses a low-energy LoRa network. Spend a few minutes with it.

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Do read Neil Perkin on Annie Oakley, Kaiser Wilhelm, and frozen accidents (with an able assist from Shane Parrish). The story is excellent, but the payoff is golden — and worth repeating loudly and with some frequency:

Making rigid predictions in complex adaptive environments is largely a fools game. Like mutations in evolution, random accidents are just as important in shaping the future as incremental improvements.

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This week in the dangers of obscurantism:

Shane O’Leary on planners’ habit of equating complexity with sophistication (4min) is searing, and correct.

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The story of the Media Lab team road trip to Shenzhen area factories to hack manufacturing processes (13min) reads like fantasy fanfic for materials science types:

We were particularly interested in how K-Tech’s knitting process uses various yarn types. This variety gave us a wide design space to try out new functional textiles in production-level quality and quantities. We started by learning how to program our own knitting patterns, and then we hacked the process by writing our own computer software to control the knitting machines independently and to test materials that are usually considered too difficult to be machine-handled.

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Sarah Watson’s piece on the academic habits that become watch-outs for new agency hires (3min) on the APG UKwebsite is whip-smart. If you ever have a chance to see Sarah speak in-person, grab at the opportunity. She’s a delight.

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I took a lot from Frédéric Caplette’s piece for We Seek on the hidden value of code reviews (5min). This reads as terribly obvious, but has rather significant implications, I think:

The magic of the code review is that no matter your level, if everyone participates with the intention of learning, then everyone will get something out of it.

Read the whole piece, friends. I’m curious how the idea of code reviews translates to other fields of (especially less-technical) work. Hat tip to Patrick Tanguay for the link.

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Mark Pollard is writing the Internet faster than you can read it. This week, I’m fond of #7 on his ways strategists and planners keep creatives happy (5min):

Planners on the rise in places in which I’ve worked aren’t seen as obstacles and are hustlers, finding interesting stuff, rushing back to share it. Careerists take themselves too seriously. It’s a turn-off and people will want to take you down. HADOKEN.

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I wrestled a bit with Adrian Ho’s post on the Zeus Jones blog on reimagining consumer journeys as modular entities (6min) — it’s not an especially new approach outside the advertising and comms community. Adrian makes some provocative and smart points, though — this, especially:

building interactions on the theory of emotional marker moments ensures we know which pieces have a dramatic impact on users. The theory shows us that emotional interactions matter more than their relative actual importance, and can, in fact, shape our entire memory and perception of a whole experience. When we know what those moments are, we can over-deliver in a few key interactions, and make a strong lasting impression on the experience overall.

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Jobs and Events for Misfit Toys:

If you’re in the Boston area, Processing Community Day on 21 October at the MIT Media Lab is going to be mega: Ben FryCasey Reas! Eva Diaz! Sydette HarryTickets are still available.

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Instrument is wonderful, and hiring (mostly) developers. You should probably go work for them.

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Just an open Creative Director role for digital product areas at the BBC. Go ahead and make mum proud.

Until next week.

Dark Matter: 27 September 2017

First, a quick note:

From the outset, Dark Matter has been an exercise in proselytizing. I think more people should read Ben Bashford on music as software. I want more people to consider how the blockchain transforms what it means to be a street vendor in Kabul. Design principles, better app onboarding, and even other people’s newsletters are the kinds of things I wanted to spread.

Every week, a few thousand people click on a Dark Matter link. I’ve no aspirations to build a revenue stream on top of those clicks, no Blue Apron code to share with you. Instead, I’m asking this:

If you enjoy the newsletter this week, share it with someone else who might find something worthwhile in it. tinyletter.com/ianfitzpatrick

I’m not trying to build a brand, just a larger island of misfit toys.


This week in pipes you see, pipes you don’t:

Matt Webb begins with this video of self-guided Chinese warehouse robots and posits (3min):

It used to be that the pipes were visible, and the packets were dumb but had addresses. The junctions were smart and did the work. We call them routers. Here there are no routers and there are no pipes. But instead, autonomous packets.

And that’s the fascinating part of the future we’re peeking at: the news, music, products, and facts we want find their way to us — not through channels or pipes, but with a built-in, self-steering logic.

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Spend a few minutes with Ben Terrett on the underlying service models of smart cities (4min). Ben earns points for referencing Schelling Points, which are the new Overton Windows.

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The possibilities presented by a universe rich with super-low-cost Linux boards (2min) are every bit as compelling as a universe replete with Elon Musk products.

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Buried in a post on design challenges for mixed reality development (7min) by Greg Madison on the Unity 3D blog, this on the notion of ‘intention amplification’ (a new term to me):

By centering design around a user’s intent and using intelligent objects that respond to that intent by modifying themselves, our thought process is not limited by physical laws, but rather will allow us to achieve a new freedom.

Spend a few minutes with the entire piece — or better yet, start at the very beginning.


This week in notes from the department of legality & compliance:

I had lunch last week with my dear old friend Mike Sullivan, who once remarked that:

“In Japan, everything is illegal until it’s legal. In the USA, everything is legal until it’s illegal. It’s a compliance culture.”

It was significant enough an observation that I felt compelled to jot it down at the time. I was reminded of it this week in reading Giles Turnbull’s piece on permission (4min), as told through the ‘It’s OK’ prints made by the Government Digital Service:

I think what’s missing in some organisations is explicit, clear permission.

There are leaders who don’t realise that there are teams waiting for permission to work in different ways. There are teams who hear conflicting messages from different leaders about what’s allowed and what isn’t. This lack of clarity is slowing change down.

This mirrors my own experience, particularly inside organizations with younger, less-experienced teams.

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I’m particularly drawn to Lara Hogan’s explanation of language and framing inside her broader, and fantastic, piece on working toward ongoing compensation and promotion equity (9min). This is really smart (and it absolutely matters):

When describing the statistically significant difference in rates of promotion to those leadership groups, I chose my words carefully. Rather than “women and nonbinary people get promoted” or “earn promotions”, I used “we promote women and nonbinary people more slowly”. Because, after all, it is the group of managers who are doing the promoting at an unfair rate, rather than women and nonbinary people not earning the promotions as quickly.

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18F has published a brief guide to giving and receiving feedback (4min). Share it broadly and vigorously.

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This looks fascinating: a study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology that explores the propensity of three year-olds to ask for help in completing tasks (note: full study paywalled) finds distinctly different patterns in the seeking of outside expertise among children from Japan, Canada, and the United States. Tip of the hat to Andreea Nastase​ for the link.

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via James Boardwell, Lauren Kelly’s explanation of nudges and the role of choice architecture in the service design (or lack thereof) in Uber’s surge pricing (6min), on the Dura site, is wonderful. Spend a few minutes with it. The entire Dura site is lovely.

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5 minutes well-spent: Jeff Guhin’s piece on the interaction models from which his professional (and non-professional) experiences borrow:

There’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world. Here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.

It’s really fantastic, and broadly applicable across walks of life.

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Elizabeth Churchill — Director of User Experience at Google — posted a heady, frequently surprising, piece to the EPIC blog this week, on ‘new data dialects’ (11min). An especially tantalizing selection:

These ideas of ethnomining and of reading the logs and following the traces, and of interviewing databases, triangulated with more “traditional” ethnographic methods like interviewing and participant observation, have been very powerful in my work and in the work of my teams… at eBay, Michael Gilbert and I combined detailed behavioral log trace analysis with data visualizations of account holders’ search practices. Interviews revealed the shopping habits and patterns of consumers looking for bargains. The insights from this work would not have been possible with interviews alone, nor from purely studying behavioral logs, nor from aggregates like “daily actives” summaries. Our analyses convinced our product counterparts to think beyond “the user” as a single entity, perhaps a single person, and instead conceptualize a social entity—an example being multiple people on one account, or perhaps a single person with multiple accounts trying to maintain boundaries between social roles.

One of the benefits of supplementing traditional qualitative research with the ethnomining is the capacity to give shape to things like the ‘social entities’ that Churchill calls out. Absent the data, these behaviors are too-frequently dismissed as ‘edge cases’ not meriting investigation.

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Speaking of edges, Martin Weigel dropped a white privilege mixtape (2min) this week.


This week in the identity politics of our AI overlords:

“Information bottleneck” (9min) looks like it might be an important idea in both neuroscience and AI over the next decade, which makes it worth at least a few minutes of your time. Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

The idea is that a network rids noisy input data of extraneous details as if by squeezing the information through a bottleneck, retaining only the features most relevant to general concepts. The bottleneck could serve “not only as a theoretical tool for understanding why our neural networks work as well as they do currently, but also as a tool for constructing new objectives and architectures of networks.”

* * *

The most profoundly difficult thing I read this week was Shreeharsh Kelkar’s piece for Scatterplot on early developments artificial intelligence, post-foundationalism, and and Michal Kosinsky’s much-derided “gaydar” study (9min), which claims to have trained a machine to tease out sexual orientation from a library of facial images. This, among several graphs, rings true:

In what I have found to be one of the best descriptions of what it means to do technical work, Phil Agre, who worked both as an AI researcher and a social scientist, points out that AI researchers rarely care about ideas by themselves. Rather, an idea is only important if it can be built into a technical mechanism, i.e. if it can be formalized either in mathematics or in machinery.  Agre calls this the “work ethic”.

The whole post is worthy of your time.

* * *

Erica Virtue has a easy-to-follow, razor-sharp piece on using AI in the Facebook Recommendations design process (8min), along with the best name ever.

* * *

From a Wired UK profile of Finnish data scientist Harri Valpola (8min), this gem:

Valpola’s method is simple: “The best way to clean dirty data is to get the computer to do it for you.” His first attempt was revealed in a paper published in 2015, which described a ladder network: a neural network that trained itself to deal with complicated situations by injecting noise into its results as it went along, like a teacher keeping her students on their toes by throwing mistakes into a test.

* * *

This, from Corin Faife’s fantastic article for How We Get to Next on access to genetic therapies and the socio-economic mechanics of CRISPR (13min):

As Kozubek has noted, a handful of American insurance companies have already issued policies that specifically exclude gene therapies in order to avoid bearing the cost, a move that could set a precedent across the industry. In the U.S., sickle-cell anemia most commonly afflicts African-Americans and other communities of color, which tend to be poorer and have worse access to healthcare than less-affected communities. (Princeton anthropology professor Carolyn Rouse has argued that “sickle-cell disease funding is a form of social justice for blacks as breast cancer funding is for women.”)

* * *

I love being alive in 2017: The Ambient Shipping repo on Github “contains utilities for capturing AIS messages broadcast by passing ships and then joining them with public data sets that reveal what the ships are carrying.”

Until next week.

Dark Matter: 19 September 2017

I took a bit of time off to rest and recover. For the long-form inclined, my reading list: The Shepherd’s LifeSpeculative EverythingHow to Be Both.

Thanks, as always, to those of you who share Dark Matter with colleagues and friends on the Twitters. It means loads.


This week in Amazigh breaks and fantastic Dutch names:

I’ve been re-reading Jace Clayton’s magnificent Uproot — which my old friend Patrick Tomasiewicz was kind enough to send to me a few months back. This particular passage — taken from a chapter that finds Clayton in the bodegas of Morocco searching for Berber beats — caught my attention again:

“Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on. A fraction of a dollar for hundreds of songs, crammed on as MP3s.”

Closely related: Joris van den Boom (Best.Name.Ever) has a dispatch this week from Addis Ababa on public vending machines dispensing pirated movies and television shows to thumb drives for as little as $0.13 apiece (3 min). The lesson, again: most content is only worth as much as the cheap container it fits inside.

Also related — but from the other end of the price/value spectrum — this from a Daniel Knowles piece for 1843 Magazine on the surreal role of The Internet in The Congo (4min):

Anderson turned to YouTube. This was not easy, because a gigabyte of data in Congo costs $10 – a fortune for most Congolese. But by sitting up after midnight, he could get off-peak internet for far less. On his ancient, battered Chinese smartphone, he showed me instructional videos he had downloaded about how to conjugate verbs, old American movies (“Coming to America” was a favourite), and speeches by Barack Obama. It was Obama who taught him to drop his Ts. “I heard him say this expression ‘gotta’. It was so complicated to me. I felt I had to learn to speak all over again.”

An aside: if you’ve not heard it lately (or ever), go stream Clayton’s legendary DJ mix Gold Teeth Thief.

* * *

Julian Oliver has a wonderful writeup on Harvest : a project to use wind power to mine cryptocurrency that’s used to fund climate research (4 min), complete with abundant source code and technical specification.

H/T on the above to CreativeApplicationswhich is using ‘a javascript miner for the Monero Blockchain’ — essentially using visitors’ browser to mine currency while on the site in return for delivering an ad-free experience. This is a wonderful idea, if sustainable, and one more publishers should explore.

* * *

Lucia Moses published a fascinating piece for Digiday on the output of The Washington Posts’s Heliograf (3 min) — a primitive AI that the paper has used to publish more than 850 articles in the last year. Once again, the value of the content seems perilously bound to the container.


This week in the aggregation of seventh-level druids:

Sam Ford — he of the Convergence Culture Consortium and Spreadable Media — was in town last week to address the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and spent a few hours with me over breakfast in Kendall Square talking professional wrestling, consulting models, and his adventures through his home state of Kentucky developing the Artisanal Economies Project. I’ve referenced this collaboration with Grant McCracken in Dark Matter before, but if you’ve not spent time with it please do give it a look.

Speaking of Kendall Square: stop what you’re doing and read Audrey Watters lecture to MIT’s Comparative Media Studies course on the history of learning objects (10min) — and what they have to tell us about our future(s). At a minimum, bookmark it for a few minutes of uninterrupted time, if only for passages like this:

There’s a long history of criticism of the idea of “intelligence” – its origins in eugenics; its use as a mechanism for race- and gender-based exclusion and sorting. It’s a history that educational psychology, deeply intertwined with the development of measurements and assessments, has not always been forthright about. Education technology, with its origins in educational psychology, is implicated in this. And now we port this history of “intelligence” – one steeped in racism and bias – onto machines.

* * *

Unrelated, but wonderful: Grant had a post this week on his affinity for the phrase ‘goat rodeo’ as a substitute for ‘dumpster fire’ (4min):

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

* * *

There are some gems in Michael Bobick’s piece for the Cooper blog on the symbiotic relationship between participatory ethnography and user experience (6min). Most of this won’t be especially new to the Jan Chipchase fanboy set — a number of whom subscribe to this newsletter — but there are certainly good points to be made here, and Bobick makes them elegantly.

* * *

Aaron Renn asks an important, and under-represented question lost in the rush to wallpaper the modern experience with back issues of FastCompany:

where is the expansive treatment of the economic value – the negative economic value – of declines in social conditions? (5min) Is the fully expansive impact of violence in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods fully counted? Is the quality of life impact of having a mother strung out on opioids, or having a father who is just plain gone? What’s the impact of going from being able to leave your keys in your car and your house unlocked to realizing that burglary is a very real possibility? And speaking of health, what is the all in effect on a community of the declining life expectancy we’ve experienced?

* * *

Janelle Shane is training a neural network to create and name Dungeons and Dragons characters, and could use any past characters you have lying around in your archives to help her train the model with backstories. Really. You absolutely know you want to help.


This week in synthetic cartography:

I was delighted this weekend to tune in to the odd NPR program and hear Anab Jain’s voice pouring through my car radio — speaking to the TED Radio Hour on Superflux’s work around envisioning environmental conditions of future cities. A few short days later, the studio posted about the latest release of its’ Buggy Air prototype (2min):

You can put it on a buggy, a bike, or even a rucksack/handbag. It’s more adaptable for different users with a new strap design, so we can get people using it in a wider range of situations. The device has a smaller circuit board with smaller sensors attached which allows for the new smaller design. The intention is to collect varied and diverse data sets, which can create a more dynamic map of the city’s air pollution. We want to connect this data with local councils, schools and other institutions for direct, location action.

* * *

In similarly speculative territory: a terrain-authoring prototype (2min) that allows an artist to render three-dimensional topographies from a Wacom tablet and tools like an ‘erosion synthesizer’. It makes more sense when you see it come to life.

You know that you want an erosion synthesizer.

* * *

I just found Krystal Higgins’ First Time User Experiences : a delightfully well-authored log of user onboarding notes. Make particular note of her clear, succinct language — so rare in this community. Also: tumblr.

* * *

From Semil Shah’s piece on Nestle’s acquisition of a majority stake in Blue Bottle (4min), this:

Frequent consumer interactions are rare and therefore valuable. Consumer attention in the age of iPhones and Instagram is the most finite resource these days. So, when loyal coffee drinkers in urban centers wait for 20 minutes for an individually-brewed cup of coffee, and those drinkers come by once, twice, or even three times per day, the frequency of consumer interactions are likely valued by the acquirer (in this case, Nestle) more than a simple model of forward-looking revenues.

I’d not really thought of the really world in quite that way: that the interactions are (potentially, contextually) of greater aggregate value than the transactions. Amazon, which primes us not to build our cart but to transact against it, would probably agree.

* * *

Finally, spend six minutes with Leyla Acaroglu’s fabulous piece on the six fundamental concepts of systems thinking: interconnectedness, synthesis, emergence, feedback loops, causality, and systems mapping.

I’ve experienced, in recent years, that no factor plays a more profound role in the capacity for 2 or more organizations to plug-in to one another than a shared understanding of systems thinking and the role it plays in internal workflows and business (and experience) planning. It trumps (and transcends) digital vs. traditional, legacy vs. startup. Give Leyla’s piece a read, and share it liberally.

Until next week.


Dark Matter: 18 August 2017

It’s a remarkable time to be alive — or, at least it was until my decade-in-the-making startup, Authenticanshad its thunder stolen in the Washington Post by something called Surkus.

If you like Dark Matter, you should probably be reading Scott Smith’s Changeist newsletter, too.

On to the Interweb.


This week in the hidden predictive power of Pop Will Eat Itself lyrics:

Separate, and yet inextricably linked: ArenaFPV bills itself as a next generation gaming platform (3min) — effectively a physical world arcade in which competitors can race drones and remote control cars through obstacle courses, but from home. Václav Mlynář has built what looks to be a board game version of a Monument Valley puzzle (2min) that uses object recognition to unlock levels and worlds in an accompanying tablet experience.

* * *

Sam Rolfes has launched an entire genre of video performances recorded live inside game engines. His video for Lunice’s ‘Trust’ (4min) is absolutely mesmerizing.

* * *

I love Frances Ng’s integration of coreML into ARKit : an augmented layer to her living space that handles real-time translation and object recognition. This is hella primitive, but you can absolutely imagine what it portends.

* * *

From Jane Hu’s contribution to How We Got to Next, on real-life cyborgs and hacking our way to sensory amplification (18min):

there are already mundane devices that can detect and give us a readout of electromagnetic waves, but it’s different to sensing those waves. By translating them into something audible, we experience something new, just as people who lose their sight find that they can start to interpret other sensory information in new ways to “see”. Babitz explains this distinction between knowing and sensing by contrasting finding true north from reading a compass versus feeling the vibration from the North Sense magnet attached to him, which buzzes whenever he’s facing magnetic north. Consulting a compass takes conscious effort; getting a buzz when you’re facing north does not.

Read the whole thing, friends. It’s wonderful.


This week in it’s gonna be awesome:

I wrote last week about the potential of blockchain to transform microbusinesses — street merchants and remote vendors. This week a similar story from Knowledge @ Wharton on the capacity of blockchain models to enhance the process of environmental cleanup in Nigeria’s famously-dangerous Niger Delta (7min). The implications are staggering:

the blockchain coalition are looking to use “smart contracts” to bypass corruption and solve the problem of distrust in Ogoniland. These digital contracts automatically execute when all parties fulfill their responsibilities. For example, if Shell has set aside $10 million to clean up an oil spill, funds would be released to the contractor after the work has been verified as finished. “The total monies for the contract won’t be fulfilled until the community members have confirmed that this project has been completed,” Nnadi says. Ordinarily, he notes, the contractor helps himself to some of the money.

* * *

Jeff Sauro’s post on coding and processing verbatims in research and testing feedback cycles (5min) is bookmark-worthy in every way.

* * *

If you’ve not read it yet, Alexandra Samuel’s piece for JSTOR on smartphones and parenting behaviors (11min) makes for fantastic, if ever-so-slightly heavy-handed reading. This stuck with me:

if we’ve let smartphones run roughshod over our lives, it’s not just because they offer respite from our annoying kids, but because they offer respite from our annoying selves.

* * *

Rick Webb talking about early Barbarian (30min) is still one of my favorite things.


This week in moving at the pace of ideas:

It’s not sexy, but spend a few minutes with Toby Park and Ariella Kristal’s piece for the Behavioral Insights team blog on cognitive biases that impact project planning and delivery teams (4min). Circulate it wildly.

* * *

Matt Webb is a fantastic writer, and his Upsideclown project well merits any time you can give it. It was Matt’s observations on publishing and measurement interfaces (5min) though, that — as a long time writer of my own things for the Internet — caught my eye:

This isn’t because I want to optimise an audience; this isn’t because I want to sell ads. This is because it’s nice to know that 17 people read the website and 21 people opened the newsletter, and 36 people read the same story on Facebook, and 6 in an RSS reader — and gosh that’s like the whole top level of a double decker bus, all those people read my story! When companies deal with millions and billions, I think perhaps they forget how the intimate feels. How sometimes it’s not about a thousand retweets but instead about an audience of readers who come back. With whom you have a relationship. Who appreciate you, and you appreciate them. Yes it’s a pleasure to write, and yes I will do it without needing to get 1,000 likes on each and every story, but also let’s not forget that it’s more pleasant with company.

* * *

“Are there any new aliens lately?” : I love this, and so will you: “Anab Jain is trading tiny Mars Orbiter probe models on the streets of India in return for stories of dreams and visions of the future.

* * *

Ben Terrett has a brief, provocative piece on desire paths and pace layering (1min). Now you’re going to see it everywhere you look.

* * *

Martin Weigel wrote what might be my favorite post of the Summer, an extended treatise on the modern corporation, unified theories, and Allan Wilson’s famous milk seal experiments. A particularly great slice:

For once you squeeze out creativity’s ability to surprise, disrupt and delight, once you’ve taken human imagination out of the equation, you’re entirely reliant on buying as much timely, well-located, well-branded real estate as you possibly can.  And as analyses by both Nielsen and the IPA have shown, you’re going to have to spend in excess of your current market share if you want to see any growth. Some lazy readers have bastardised or skim-read the work of marketing scientists to arrive at the belief that well-branded, broadly distributed wallpaper is all that is required. But the simple truth is that as Binet and Field have shown, creativity makes marketing monies work harder.


I’ll be off next week, and back at it the week after. Have a great few weeks.


Dark Matter: 11 August 2017

A day or two late this week, as I was on the road for a bit.

Before we dive into the newsletter, a quick plug: Jed Hallam writes an absolutely wonderful, if infrequent, newsletter of his own called Love Will Save the Day, focused on music and the people who give generously of their love for it. If that appeals to you, please subscribe. His is an enthusiasm to which I aspire.

As always, thanks to those of you who share this with a friend or with a follower. Thanks also to those of you who’ve replied to this email with personal notes. I found a trove of unread messages in my TinyLetter inbox from old friends and new readers, and they made my week. You are beautiful.


This week in admitting — however reluctantly — that ‘The Net’ > ‘The Circle’

The BBC’s R&D blog continues to be one of the best sources around for new thinking on content workflows and design. Jasmine Cox’s writeup on adaptive stories workshops (4min) — built around the team’s previously-cited idea of object-based media — is another fantastic example. It’s a brilliant blend of speculative design and user experience thinking.

* * *

Ryo Takahashi published an on-point piece on the role that blockchain technologies can play in creative economies (8min) on the McKinsey blog. I’ve had quite a few conversations at work lately stemming from inquiries by colleagues looking to ‘understand’ or ‘wrap my head around’ blockchain, and I almost always end up back at smart contracts and reputation management. While plenty has been written about the ways in which these technologies will benefit large enterprises, I get most excited about the transformative effect that they might have for sole proprietors — street merchants, artists, and musicians.

Speaking of which, Plasma looks very interesting.

* * *

I got a kick out of Lakshmi Mani’s illustrated guide to hyperbolic discounting (3min) — a concept with which I was admittedly unfamiliar. Used in a sentence: ‘why do [these clients] insist on locking themselves in a perpetual loop of hyperbolic discounting?’


This week in the dulcet tones of Dunkirk:

Now you’re going to hear the Shepard Tone everywhere (3min).

* * *

Do read Page Laubheimer’s argument against dispensing with personas altogether in favor of Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be Done’, as some have espoused. A point that I (among many, many others) have frequently made, as well:

Unfortunately, many personas (really, marketing segments being masqueraded as personas) don’t go any deeper than the demographic or personal level, which is why personas can often be derided as less valuable for making design decisions than jobs-to-be-done…rich personas typically will include information related to specific goals that users must achieve when they use the product; these goals are directly comparable to the information found in the jobs-to-be-done definition.

Related, via Chris Smith: Tanjo’s animated personas are especially intriguing (11min).

* * *

The industrial 3D printing world is having its mainframe moment (3min):

Just as with traditional manufacturing, there’s a drive to provide a more dynamic, live environment for factory automation and analytics.

Interestingly, it’s both a software and a hardware opportunity.

* * *

The Paris Review published an absolutely must-read profile of electronic composer Suzanne Ciani. A gem of an excerpt:

For Ciani, phrases like having a voice and agency had long taken on new meaning through technology (to say nothing of taking on an industry). Part of her—which is also the part that got her into the Pinball Hall of Fame—lives inside the stroboscopic pinball game Xenon. Vocoded and then sampled onto a vocalizer chip called a “daughter card,” hers is the first female voice in the arcade. This distinction may thrill gamers more than it does Ciani herself, though she’s cool with taunting generations of boys out of their lunch money. (A friend of mine was introduced to pinball while in the womb, just hours from the world, his mother, a professional therapist yelling, “You mother funhouse!” back at the machine, smacking flippers in the back of of a deli on Seventy-Second Street.)

* * *

Pippin Barr has released a game in which the player is confronted with a history of computer-rendered water (3 minutes or maybe forever) — traditionally a benchmark for the level of visual sophistication of an interface. I know, really I do — but check it out anyway.

* * *

This is what happens when we strap human will and effort to the yoke of machine pace: a fashion model capable of completing 30 poses in a 15 second window.


This week in the hidden subtext of face with head bandage:

Alex Palma’s written a genuinely-great piece for the Cyborgology blog of The Society Pages on cyberpunk as a roadmap for navigating consumerism (5min). A particularly smart point:

Those interested in Cyberpunk can quote William Gibson ad nauseum on this: “The Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined.” What Gibson is saying: characters in Cyberpunk overcome the assigned manufactured purpose of the things around them. Cyberpunk fiction is filled with individuals owning what they own but simultaneously do not “own.” It’s filled with individuals who subvert prescribed use.

* * *

As a rule, one should avoid prognostication on future tech from sites that make excessive use of CSS-based drop shadow, but the article on body-area networks (4min) on the Institute for the Future site is worth a read. File this among your copious notes on the battleground that our personal preference profile has already become:

As the next decade unfolds, our body area networks will take advantage of this new science of decision-making—the biomarkers and personal histories that affect the ways we decide—and remind us to do things like eat protein bars before tense conversations. Our bodies are becoming one of the new frontiers in contextual computing. In much the same way our phones can guide us toward different routes based on traffic patterns, our body area networks will guide us toward different decisions based on the patterns of our biomarkers—altering us when our decision-making ability is impaired or even taking action to get us in a better decision-making mindset.

* * *

As part of a larger, infinitely-fascinating body of work, MIT researchers have slayed that darkest of dragons — the sarcastic use of emoji. Ups to Patrick Tomasiewicz for the link.

* * *

At the intersection of The Wayback Machine and a Trump Tweet for Every Occasion, there’s Neal Agarwal’s amazing, perfect Ten Years Ago. You’re welcome.


Jobs for Misfit Toys

Boston residents: Tetra Science is hiring for a Customer Success Manager. This is an absolutely fascinating company, with some brilliant people behind it.

Also in Boston: a company close to my heart, Pillpack, is hiring a Consumer Product Manager. One of the best teams anywhere.

Made Movement is hiring a Senior Strategist in Boulder. You could do much, much worse.

Siberia is hiring Design Leads and other such things in fancy cities across the US. Management is even-handed, if unable to suffer fools.

Until next week.


Dark Matter: 2 August 2017

A reader called me out this week for my ‘men-only recommendations policy’ — and it cut. And while it’s hardly been an intended policy, it’s a completely fair critique: over the last three months, 84% of the links I’ve referenced (I’ve gone back and counted) have been written been by men, almost all of them white. Like me.

The truth is that I don’t read enough blogs and journals written by people who aren’t like me. I don’t follow enough women — and not nearly enough women of color — on Twitter. Dark Matter is a little less than it could be because of that, which is a disservice to those of you who take the time to read it.

I can do better, and I will.


This week in aggressively-smoothed multimodals:

From Eliza Brooke’s fantastic piece for Racked on the tyranny of startup cultures’ sans-serif, whitespace-fueled aesthetic (8min):

Simple branding also reinforces many startups’ pitches, which go something like this: They’re making great-quality products and selling them straight to you at a low price, because they’ve cut out the retail markup. They offer at-home try-ons and free return shipping, with the label pre-printed and included in your delivery. Not only does pared-down branding mimic the straightforwardness of the customer experience, but, as Critton points out, it holds the brand responsible for the quality of its service. There are no trimmings to disguise a shoddy product or user experience — unless, of course, startup minimalism has become that very trimming.

It’s not an unreasonable indictment — one that parallels the oft-cited argument that an over-reliance on a handful of UX-ey conventions has sapped the fun from the Interweb.

Personally, I think the same thing is happening to Pitchfork-endorsed neo-soul — but that’s a different topic for a different newsletter.

* * *

Look really smart at work this week, and use Andrew Allen’s illustration of the learning gap in design in your next internal presentation. Bookmark and use liberally — with permission, natch.

* * *

When I finish my current reading list, I’m going to buy a 30 day copy of Lucy Kimball & Jocelyn Bailey’s paywalled-AF article for CoDesign on prototyping in public policy making. From the abstract, this:

This conceptual paper discusses the use of Co-Design approaches in the public realm by examining the emergence of a design practice, prototyping, in public policy-making. We argue that changes in approaches to management and organisation over recent decades have led towards greater flexibility, provisionality and anticipation in responding to public issues. These developments have co-emerged with growing interest in prototyping.

* * *

Sound researcher/designer Wesley Goatley marked up Apple’s product page for HomePod to reflect the gap between the ways we talk/write about products and technologies, and the ways in which they actually work. Language is important, and we’re dangerously casual with it at the moment.


This week in it’s no better to be safe than sorry:

Patricia McDonald wins the week with this, from a Campaign piece on brand building in an age of invisible technology (5min):

Thinking not just about tone of voice or look and feel, but about the body language of a brand in the digital space. How do our brands feel, swipe and gesture? What are the ergonomics of our brand?

I’ve never been a fan of applying human traits to brand behaviors, but what are the ergonomics of our brand? is a wonderful framework that combines aesthetics, usability, and tactile experience into an elegant heuristic.

* * *

Joanne McNeil on augmented reality’s role as an advertising medium, rather than a creative one (3min):

Why isn’t VR as good as music videos were in the 80s? This week people went wild over an AR recreation of A-ha’s “Take on Me.” It’s a technical achievement but not a creative one. A creative achievement would be to this moment what “Take on Me” was in 1984. Something doesn’t need to be technically advanced to capture people’s imaginations as that video did, but I don’t see any entry points in the industry or attempts to nurture that kind of talent.


This week in vesting periods for OODA loops:

I loved Justine Lai’s open letter to herself, exploring her last nine months (6min) at August — particularly her acknowledgement of the attendant challenges of self-management:

What doesn’t feel great is that for all the processes, systems and governance structures that we construct, humans are still humans. They are flawed and bring their previous experiences and biases with them. As your coworker Sasha has said much more eloquently, until we really do the work to understand and address our own biases, blind spots, and privilege, the same power and hierarchy dynamics that affect every other work place do affect August, and hinder the legitimacy of our self-organizing system.

* * *

I just came across Rod Jacka’s piece on evidence-based (vs. data-driven) processes (4min) on the Panalysis blog, and thought this made for a wonderfully-succinct description:

An evidence based approach:

  • Gathers data (in its broadest sense) and weighs this according to its credibility
  • Analyses and interprets this data
  • Creates hypotheses that can be tested
  • Designs experiments that are used to test these hypotheses
  • Accounts for our many cognitive biases
  • Runs these experiments and assesses the results
  • Documents what is learnt and then plans the next steps.
* * *

If you read nothing else in this week’s missive, spend six minutes with Leisa Reichelt’s three notes from a brief career in the public service . I’ve got a rather well-documented love affair with various governmental digital service types, and Leisa’s points are a wonderful distillation of lessons learned elsewhere, namely:

  1. Your organisation will benefit more from you being user centred than the users ever will.
  2. Orient everything you can in your organisation around real user journeys
  3. Seek the truth, even if it’s ugly

This week in Supreme x visvim flash sales:

Brad Feld has realized that money is just an illusory conensual agreement to honor an arbitrary social pact (2min) — and he has the historical citations to prove it.

* * *

For those of you with a stash of CERN images stored in a folder on your desktop, quietly browsed while dreaming of the job in materials science you could have had, if only: Google’s expertise in machine learning is being applied, at scale, to the advancement of plasma fusion study (6min).

* * *

Wait, wha?

Retailers like Kmart have been known to buy up liquidation stock when companies go under, selling the cut-price bulk orders for a tidy profit. Supreme has never revealed where it gets its blank T-shirts from, but many have long pegged American Apparel as a key supplier. When American Apparel went bust, instead of the tees going to Supreme, they’ve instead been sent to Kmart. ​

* * *

An occasionally-difficult, completely rewarding read: a paper on a new ‘attack algorithm’ : an approach to understanding the ways in which road signs can be altered/vandalized/’perturbed’, this rendering them unrecognizable/misrecognized to machine learning systems like Google StreetView. It’s a fascinating paper, worth scanning to the end even if you find yourself lost in the mathematics of it all.


Dark Matter: 27 July 2017

A handful of readers responded to my call for job postings. Several of them have been posted at the end of this week’s wordy missive. As there seems to be some demand, keep them coming.

The Interwebs contained multitudes this week. Strap in.


This week in eugenics and the Internet des choses

Have a look at Beijing’s unmanned convenience store, where facial recognition gets you in the door and checkout takes place via WeChat. Novel, sure — but also a wee bit sad?

* * *

Related: is Venmo making friendship a little too transactional? (4min) An excerpt:

“It’s making people less generous and chivalrous,” Ms. Pennoyer said. “It used to be you’d go to a restaurant, and you’d put down your credit cards and split it 50-50, even if one person had steak and one had chicken. But now people pay exactly to the cent.”​

* * *

The Indian Times has a fascinating, if completely unsettling, piece on the pursuit of “uttam santati” — a perfect, “customized child” (4min). Brace yoursel:

the project was inspired by Germany, which they claimed had “resurrected itself by having such signature children through Ayurvedic practices within two decades after World War II. The parents may have lower IQ, with a poor educational background, but their baby can be extremely bright. If the proper procedure is followed, babies of dark-skinned parents with lesser height can have fair complexion and grow taller,” said Dr Hitesh Jani, national convener, Arogya Bharati.

* * *

This is heartbreaking, and wonderful: the BBC has constructed a brilliant bit of storytelling from the contents of abandoned phones owned by three recently-deceased teenage ISIS fighters (11min). This raises some fascinating questions about privacy and content ownership that I’d love to see addressed publicly at greater length by the publisher. If you know of a citation, please pass it along.

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From Dean Vipond’s thoughtful essay on finding solace in the collecting of postage stamps (5min), this:

You see, I realised that stamps, for the most part, are about Good Things. They celebrate the wonders of the natural world — trees, mountains, birds, insects! They examine the fantastic achievements of individuals — scientists, artists, inventors, architects, social reformers! And they also celebrate great feats of co-operation — sporting events, world fairs, education, the United Nations, space travel! So many Good Things.

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Apropos of nothing, I really loved Colin Nagy’s interview with Mark Cho (3min) of The Armoury for Leanluxe. More than a few good lessons inside for anyone who likes to prattle on about ‘customer experience’ and ‘authenticity’.

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I came across several people, from Chris Butler to Dan Williams, this week talking about Minitel — sort of a French pre-Internet with elegant (natch) terminals. From a history of the Minitel (9min) posted last month in IEEE’s Spectrum:

For small business owners, this flexibility transformed the Minitel terminal into a low-cost point-of-sale system. And long before the Internet of Things, Minitel was incorporated into a variety of home-automation schemes, allowing remote control of heaters, VHS recorders, security alarms, and sprinklers.​

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@MachinePix is the best Twitter account of all the Twitter accounts ever. Somehow, ‘Stunt pilot Melissa Andrzejewski flies under highliner Andy Lewis while motocross rider Jimmy Fitzpatrick backflips over the plane’ looks even better than it sounds.


This week in playing chess with Alan Turing in Rastan-on-croan

Broadly speaking, I’m not a fan of the proliferation of threaded Twitter essays. Adam Ludwin’s thread on cryptocurrencies and the forces that drive value in decentralized applications is absolutely worth spending a few minutes with. Come for the thread, stay for the replies.

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Please read Julian Togelius’ piece on advice for journalists writing about AI (5min), as it’s probably good remedial material for generic non-journalist agency (and in-house) types, as well:

Recommendation: Don’t use the term “an AI” or “an artificial intelligence”. Always ask what the limitations of a system is. Ask if it really is the same neural network that can play both Space Invaders and Montezuma’s Revenge (hint: it isn’t).

Related: John Robb has quite a good piece for The Future of Work on common approaches to crowdsourcing AI training (3min). He makes an interesting note I’d not considered on the barriers created by the cost of processing power — and the extent to which this plays to the existing strengths of large technology companies.

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Dan Hon was already Internet famous before he trained a neural net to come up with British placenames (3min), and now he’s even more Internet famous.


This week in lossy futures and the Maidstone Saveloy:

I absolutely loved Matthew Sheret’s piece last week on designing for trust (5min) — specifically the idea that we can isolate the technical characteristics of trust. This, a thousand times over:

Consumer advocacy organisations and state bodies are starting to ask questions about how they can hold services to account for the way they use and store data. Services should be built in a way that makes it possible to do that.

Please read his whole post. It’s quite timely stuff.

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I loved tripping across Bristol Braille — a non-profit enterprise that’s built Canute, a high-end Braille reader on top of open-source firmware. So good.

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Take a few minutes with John Willshire’s post on the Time Capsule Retrieval Service (11min) — a speculative design exercise undertaken with — among others — Scott Smith, for the Emerging Technologies team at the Royal Society. It’s elegant design, and delightfully low-tech.

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All of the Space Invaders tiles in Paris are belong to Michael Surtees.


This week in the annals of supercompensation:

Tim Malbon’s piece based upon his recent Google Firestarters talk, ‘WTF is Product-Led Digital Transformation, Anyway’ (6min), is magnificent. This is one of the truer things I’ve read this week:

Working together in the right way, and delivering something exceptional leaves a permanent mark. It changes the way people work and think. Doing it is a powerful way of learning it. The way we partner to co-design and collaborate very closely across every stage of the lifecycle through ideas, insights, design, prototyping, making, scaling and operating is an incredibly powerful learning experience. You don’t get this if your partner works inside a black box, or handles the engagement in a top-down way.​

While you’re at it, Tim had an especially provocative thought this week in response to a Gizmodo piece on ad hoc social networks springing up from Amazon Echo owner contact data (4min):

Things stay connected to the company you bought them from, which means the company can change them into other things​

That’s a really important thought, and one that we’re not talking about nearly enough. We give space in our lives to a collection of known brands (and known ethe) whos principles are, all too frequently fluid.

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Finally, bookmark John Cutler’s piece for Hacker Noon on 40 ways to build resilience into (mostly, though not exclusively, design and development) teams (4min).


What I’m reading right now:

Way back in 2009, Adam Greenfield published a brilliant collection of 100 propositions for the intersection of networked technologies and urban spaces, cleverly-if-you’re-into-the-Futureheads-titled The City is Here for You to Use (7min). The first of those propositions feels like a siren’s call to government digital bureaus everywhere:

“The advent of lightweight, scalable, networked information-processing technologies means that urban environments around the world are now provisioned with the ability to gather, process, transmit, display and take physical action on data.”

He also posted a wonderful accompanying bibliography — one that’s kept me (and, I assume, others) occupied for years. Bookmark it.

Eight years later, I’m reading Greenfield’s latest book, Radical Technologies. It feels very much like a follow on to The City— particularly in the sense that it’s not nearly so much a book on technology as it is a treatise on us coming to terms with technology atop the infrastructure of daily life. A favorite excerpt, from a chapter on Augmented Reality, p79: –

Watch what happens when a pedestrian first becomes conscious of receiving a call or a text message, the immediate disruption they cause in the flow of movement as they pause to respond to it. Whether the call is made hands-free or otherwise doesn’t really seem to matter; the cognitive and emotional investment we make in it is what counts, and this investment is generally so much greater than that we make in our surroundings that street life clearly suffers as a result.


Jobs for Misfit Toys:

Ben Thompson on the Twitters, winning the week:

Hiring is probably the single largest arbitrage opportunity available. Letting degrees/admissions committees make choices for you is dumb.​

* * *

The team at Protaventures is hiring for two (remote!) positions:

  1. Visual designers with product experience who “can write CSS/Sass like a boss” and aren’t afraid to work in the Rails/Redux/React/ReactNative stack
  2. Rails developers who enjoy writing JavaScript, specifically Redux/React/ReactNative.
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Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners is hiring a senior strategist to work on ‘one of the agency’s high profile accounts’, presumably on-site in Sausalito, California.

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Made by Many is hiring both a Senior Strategist and a Product Manager, for roles on-site in London. Your author gently suggests that you apply.

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London-based agritech startup Fieldmargin is hiring a mid-weight Android dev and a mid-weight iOS dev to build tools that help farmers manage their businesses and collaborate with their teams.

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Finally, for students working at the intersection of public policy and the Interwebs, the Google Policy Fellowships in Africa and Europe are accepting applications. Get on it.


Dark Matter: 20 July 2017

Dark Matter is growing at a pretty fast clip these days — and that growth has had me thinking about how to transfer the value of scale to you, the readers (see also: Metcalfe’s Law). Stealing a turn from Anjali Ramachandran’s wonderful ‘Other Valleys’ newsletter, I’ve decided to try something new:

If you’re trying to fill a job in your organization, let me know and I’ll post the role to Dark Matter. Several thousand misfit toys around the world subscribe.

There is no charge. Reply to this email with details, ping iandfitzpatrick at gmail, or DM me on the Twitters (@ianfitzpatrick). I reserve the right to edit for reason and decency. We’ll see how this goes.


This week in talking leisure communism with Ayn Rand:

Distinguished fella (and Dark Matter subscriber) Chris Butler has a new podcast, The Liminal, focused on the in-between states of our lives. It covers extraordinary ground over the first two episodes, from Charles Fort to binaural beats.

* * *

Three standouts from ’26 Things I learnt in India’, by Martin Weigel (4min):

  • Your ideas about the primacy of the individual and the nobility and urgency of seeking ‘self-actualisation’ do not wash here, buddy.
  • You’re an employee. Pretty much everybody here is a business owner.
  • People are aware of the price the West pays for its untrammelled, selfish conception of individuality.  Having seen the consequences, they’re not convinced they want to pay it.

The whole list is fantastic, because of course it is, because Martin. He’s got a fair amount to say about the value of distancing oneself from the routine and familiar, from contexts, and from ideas of ‘old’ and ‘new’. More immediately, a simple reminder: our generalizations about the world reflect a need to, paraphrasing Anais Nin, “see the world not as it is, but as we are”.

* * *

Unrelated/completely related: work is underway on the development of Amaravati (14min) — an Indian city being designed and constructed from the ground up, projected to house a population of 11 million by 2035.

Consider the implications of this idea on what you do (they almost certainly exist):

If anything, the focus of inspiration for what makes a good city has shifted from West to East. For centuries the great cities of Western Europe, and then the big cities of the United States, were the aspirational reference points for any up-and-coming metropolis. Now Asian city planners are mostly seeking models elsewhere in Asia, for the simple reason of scale. “There is no city in Europe that has the density of Bombay or Beijing or Shanghai,” Chua told me. “You use the Amsterdam model, you would be dead. You can no longer look to Europe and America for any lessons.”

* * *

Now, pair that shift with median age by continent, via the wonderful @Amazing_Maps account


This week in fake news of the near future:

You’ve likely seen the work done by a research team at the University of Washington in fabricating new video clips of President Barack Obama (6min) using small snippets of recorded text and a neural net to dynamically generate realistic mouth movements. It’s fascinating, terrifying, brilliant work. An especially-potent excerpt from the university’s own website:

Previously, audio-to-video conversion processes have involved filming multiple people in a studio saying the same sentences over and over to try to capture how a particular sound correlates to different mouth shapes, which is expensive, tedious and time-consuming. By contrast, Suwajanakorn developed algorithms that can learn from videos that exist “in the wild” on the internet or elsewhere.

“There are millions of hours of video that already exist from interviews, video chats, movies, television programs and other sources. And these deep learning algorithms are very data hungry, so it’s a good match to do it this way,” Suwajanakorn said.

Put another way: the full history of recorded video is potential training data for new footage of each of us expressing ideas we’ve never had. The implications are staggering.

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When you’re done there, read Kenneth Stanley on Neuroevolution (7min). Neuroevolution?

Put simply, neuroevolution is a subfield within artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that consists of trying to trigger an evolutionary process similar to the one that produced our brains, except inside a computer. In other words, neuroevolution seeks to develop the means of evolving neural networks through evolutionary algorithms.

When you’re done there, Kernel.

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Surveyor, by the New York Public Library, is spectacular: a higher-tech Mechanical Turk for mapping the locations of archival city photographs. You’ve been warned: it’s an absolute rabbit hole.

* * *

Do read Jeffrey Inscho’s piece for The Studio on mobile usage benchmarking at the Carnegie museums (7min). There’s nothing especially novel in the findings, but his team’s approach is absolutely worth replicating. Fundamentally, organizations and institutions of all stripes are still really awful about benchmarking customer and user behavior.


This week in building your own Accenture with Raspberry Pi:

I was exchanging Tweets recently with Farrah on the possibilities presented by the phrase ‘how might we?’, increasingly pervasive in organizations of a certain disposition. I suggested a simple modification, replacing the word ‘how’ with ‘in what ways’, the latter being divergent, the former driving convergent thinking.

I was reminded of that distinction this week in Scott Smith’s wonderful piece on the power of Future Design to align perspectives (6min). He writes:

As is often the case in structured explorations of the future, the teams’ sharing of their own future maps—and sense opportunities and concerns in their own words—allowed new understanding to surface. By making their own forecasts and insights visible to the other team, and by taking the time to debate differing data and understandings, each group deepened their own pool of possible strategic pathways.

Which, in turn, reminded me of this gem from Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World:

“You dont make strategy so that there’s one path to victory; you make it so that as many paths as possible lead to something which isn’t loss.”

Quote originally plucked by Mr. Davies.

* * *

Definitely read Eric Karjaluoto on starting a design studio (4min), even if you won’t be starting a design studio. The advice is evergreen, especially this:

Be easy to hire. I have a friend who’s smart and well qualified, but he can’t find steady work. My hunch is that no one hires him because he makes the process unnecessarily difficult. He complains about their HR software. He questions whether their interest is legitimate. He gets frustrated when the process carries on. Don’t fall into this trap. Make it easy for clients to try you out, see how you work, and get comfortable.

* * *
While you’re at it, read Tom Critchlow on organizational grain, and the need for consultants to work within it (6min), even if you won’t be starting a consultancy.
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I read Patrick Tanguay’s piece on platform organizations (6min) a few days ago and it hasn’t really left my mind since. He begins with Simone Cicero’s ace point that:
Platforms are not technologies but scalable collaboration agreements.
and runs with it, applying the ideal to internal collaboration models and product development cycles. This, in particular, has been fun to play with:
an interesting shift in understanding this idea of platform happens when you start thinking of the organization as a platform for collaboration and knowledge creation between team members and contributors. In other words, applying this model to any company, as a way of framing and structuring it, using platform design thinking ideas instead of hierarchies. Extending the model beyond its original use in creating and understanding Marketplace Platforms
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Don’t forget to send along those job listings. As always, have a great week.