Technology is a morally neutral or ambiguous force, and this is nowhere as obvious as in the history of modern, digital computers. The earliest such computers were used to calculate artillery flight paths, develop the hydrogen bomb & create actuarial tables that contributed to the massive enrichment of insurance companies & other corporate entities in the second half of the twentieth-century. Prior to this, the mechanical punch-card computers from International Business Machines had served largely the same function & throughout the 1950s it seemed that the advent of digital computer would only multiply the existing competitive advantage held by their wealthy owners.
This arrangement was not entirely without benefit to the average citizens of the United States & other industrialized nations. Standards of living rose as the efficiency gains created by computers were allowed to “trickle down” from producers to consumers in the form of lower prices for manufactured goods, cheaper credit & a variety of other ways I won’t get into here.
However, the new “freedoms” afforded by this process were of a particularly limited & insidious kind. Those who wished to share in them were required to become willing participants in their own systemization. The ways in which this systemization was made palatable to people who had spent the better part of the previous 200 years fighting against monarchistic control are rather astonishing, and have been thoroughly documented in works such as 1984 & Brave New World, as well as the documentary films of Adam Curtis and Errol Morris. While there was opposition to this increasing centralization of knowledge & control, the massive cost of computer hardware made it seem that these “means of (electronic) production” were no more likely to be owned by their true end users than were the mines & factories of 19th-century Europe.
However, throughout the 1960s computers were getting smaller & cheaper at an almost incredible rate. It was becoming increasingly obvious that in a matter of years, anyone would be able to own a computer thousands of times more powerful than those currently being used by the largest corporations. But why would they want to?
Early minicomputers were purchased by universities & eventually microcomputers found their way into the hands of individual hobbyists, but throughout the 1970s, they never really escaped from the ghetto of massive nerdiness. Despite their ever-decreasing cost, there was still little reason for most people own a computer, and those corporations & governments who had already benefited greatly from their use had little (if any) desire for this situation to change.
But Steve Jobs was among the shrewdest of the nerds. He emerged, serpent-like, from the tree of technology, offering us an Apple. We saw that it was good and ate of it, planting the seeds so that more would grow. We shared the seeds with our friends, parents, children, siblings, colleagues and others until the trees grew in every yard and the fruits were carried in every pocket.
But even as Steve’s success has proven the validity of his ideas, there remains much work to be done. As the slumbering giants of mass media, centralized government and academic institutions awaken to their own declining influence, the reactions have been all too predictable.
I’m an incredibly active user of AdWords, having spent more than $50,000 through various business accounts over the past few years. In 2009 I created a “personal” AdWords account to test out some new features in a “sandbox” environment, but never intended to run active campaigns there. In January 2010 I created a test campaign with 2 or 3 keywords but never activated it, and in fact I took what steps I believed were necessary to “deactivate” this account. The keywords were never “approved” by Google anyway & so I didn’t give this account a second thought after this point, since I was busy managing my *very* active business accounts.
Over 1 year later, Google randomly “approved” these keywords & began running ads without alerting me, eventually running up a tab of about $75 during June & July of 2011. When I first noticed these charges on my bank statement (billed as “firstname.lastname@example.org” with no other identifying information) I was totally confused & contacted Google’s “fraud protection” department with the info. They said they could not identify the charges and advised me to begin a chargeback procedure with my bank. Later, when I remembered having set up the test AdWords account I checked it out and confirmed that this was the source of the charges.
I contacted AdWords support about getting a refund on these charges via both their email & phone support lines and in both cases was told that a refund was impossible. In both cases the reps that I spoke with acknowledged that the extreme delay (1+ YEAR) in “approving” the keywords was “unusual” but ultimately this was my problem for not monitoring my account more closely and a lack of understanding about the AdWords product on my part. As I mentioned I am a heavy user of AdWords and have never had any similar problems with my business accounts, and I also consider myself a relatively sophisticated user of the service.
I feel personally insulted by the suggestion that I simply “didn’t understand” the administration of my AdWords account and I am mystified by Google’s apparent lack of concern about the satisfaction of an otherwise happy and *heavy* user of their service. I know their corporate motto is “Don’t be evil” and while this incident may not directly contradict that statement, I also believe that there is an implicit counterpart of “Don’t be a dick” which it most certainly does.
As all the hoopla surrounding AirBNB’s handling of their own customer service issues in the past few weeks has shown, the tone & sincerity of a company’s response to any given situation is often of equal or greater importance to the content of the response itself, and I believe that this is a lesson that Google must take to heart if they really do want to maintain their hard-earned reputation for doing the right thing. This is more important now than ever as Google attempts to crack the code of “Social” product design which has previously eluded their analytical, data-centric corporate culture, but since well over 90% of their total revenue continues to come from traditional forms of online advertising (search & remnant display) I’m increasingly pessimistic that they’ll be able to pull it off.
Anyway, maybe I’m just unnecessarily upset over this, but $75 isn’t pocket change and I really do think it speaks to a much larger issue (lack of attention to customer service & satisfaction) that lurks at the heart of many of Google’s recent problems. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go place some more ads on Project Wonderful and Reddit, where I’ve never had a issue that wasn’t handled quickly, efficiently and to my complete satisfaction. =D
A UX designer from AA writes him back to say (paraphrasing here) “Look dude, we *know* it sucks but have you considered the realities of building a website for a huge public company (i.e. approvals, bureaucracy, etc.) as opposed to posting snarky comments on a design blog?
Everyone who’s spent more than a few months “on the internet” knows (hopefully) that there are certain behavioral norms & expectations that ought to be observed in order to keep things civil. For example… DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT WILL LOOK LIKE YOU’RE YELLING or “It’s impossible to prevent this indefinitely, but let’s do our best to keep online discussions from getting to the point where both sides are comparing each other to Hitler for as long as possible.”
These aren’t “laws” per se, because (excuse my capitalization, but I really do want to yell this) NOBODY OWNS THE INTERNET, but they’re almost as universal as any law could ever hope to be. However, if you’ll refer back to my first sentence, please notice that I’ve qualified things by excluding those with “less than a few months” of online experience from being expected to know all these ins and outs.
Seems kind of preposterous today, since kids are now being exposed to the internet as soon as their parents realize that iPhones are more effective pacifiers than anything else yet devised, but try (if you can) to recall a time when this wasn’t the case. It was only 10 or 15 years ago. When did you first encounter email? Instant messaging? Chat rooms? Forums? Was it in high school? College? Jr. High? Until 1993 most people weren’t exposed to any of these until they got to college.
Every September, a new crop of freshmen were turned loose on the internet (or, as it was known in those days, “The Information Superhighway”) and left to fend for themselves amongst a puzzling variety of obscure protocols and acronyms that were only increasing in number. FTP, WWW, WAIS, Gopher, USENET, TCP/IP, etc. But at least they were all in it together. Once a few people clicked “Reply All” and alerted the entire Psych 101 class to their embarrassing weekend exploits the word got around, and by Thanksgiving most everyone had come to understand the basics “DOs and DON’Ts” of online etiquette. Things had returned to a sort of equilibrium.
So what happened in 1993? Well as those of you were too young to be in college at that point (myself included) will recall, it was then that our friends at America On-Line realized that their thriving floppy-disk distribution racket might be aided by including access to this “internet thing” along with your paid, dial-up subscription. And so they began allowing their members to browse not just the walled garden of AOL content, but also the internet itself: web, newsgroups & all.
Every day, more people downloaded the latest AOL system update (do you remember how long it took via 28.8 modem?) and decided to try clicking on the “Newsgroups” link that appeared on their next login. Every day AOL sent out more floppy disks & CD-ROMs. Every day more people joined the service. High-school students, 10-year-olds, cat ladies, construction workers, aging musicians and tax collectors, disgruntled postal workers, you name it. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Post-1993, there could be no equilibrium. Probably there never really was, but in any case… things changed. While some traditions were preserved (I.E. NOT USING CAPS LOCK) many others were forgotten or permanently altered by the influx of new users. Books & CDs became available for purchase. Magazines & newspapers could be read online. High-school & college kids started publishing their own websites & using the internet in ways that it’s previous inhabitants could never have predicted. Many long-time internet users recognized this sea-change & called it “Eternal September“.
But, and this is the important part, this is *exactly* what was supposed to happen. The internet in general, and the web in particular, were designed from the ground up so that it was as easy to publish and share content as it was to consume it. The very first web browser, as created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland was *also* a web editor. The web is a LEGO set and while it’s fun to follow the instructions and apply all the LucasFilm-licensed decals, it’s even *more* fun to stick Chewbacca’s head on Darth Vader’s body and put him inside a rainbow-colored jail surrounded by strange mutant trees.
A person who fell into a coma in 1965 and awoke in 1985 would probably have few problems understanding how the television in their hospital room worked. You turn it on, change the channels and wait for the commercials to end so that you can get back to the good stuff. But a person who missed out on even 4 or 5 years of the internet’s development would be significantly more confused. YouTube was founded in 2005. Facebook opened to non-academic users in 2006.
How did you first find out about Napster? BitTorrent? Yelp? MetaFilter? Wikipedia? Amazon? Google!? Chances are it wasn’t in a magazine or on a TV news report. Probably a friend or family member said “You gotta check this out.” And it turned out they were right. Things kept changing. You listened to music you’d never heard about before, read newspapers from other countries, bought a digital camera and started posting your photos online. People in Israel thought they were cool. Things kept changing.
Sometimes you weren’t sure if you *liked* the way things were changing. Your boss started reading your blog. All the photos you took with your ex kept showing up on Facebook. People started downloading the movies that your studio produced without paying for them. Was there anything that could be done to stop this? Who was in charge around here?!
Here’s the thing. You are in charge. I am in charge. We are all in charge of it together, but it is owned by none of us. In the absence of any (real) governing body, we have all managed to find a way to co-exist and use the internet together in (relative) peace and harmony. How? Why? Because on some individual level, each of us has made a decision that goes something like this:
The usefulness of being an accepted part of this community outweighs the risks or negative consequences of choosing to participate.
Of course… it’s not entirely that simple. Some people are forced to participate against their will (“Hey dude, don’t tag me in that Facebook photo”) or make decisions that they will later regret (“No, actually. In spite of those pictures of me smoking weed and wearing a Megadeth Rules t-shirt taken 12 years ago, I think I would make a great addition to the teaching staff here at Pleasantville High School!”) But, just as we were on those pre-1993 Septembers of old, all of us are in this together, and by the time “Thanksgiving” rolls around I think it will all start making a lot more sense. After all, as painful as it may be in the moment, humans are unparalleled in their ability to adapt to change.
However, there are certain institutions and entities that are not so adaptable. For instance, corporations, banks and governments. These have all been organized (at least recently) on the basis of predictable inputs and outcomes. Entire books have been written on the subject of their inflexibility, and whether anything can be done about it. It seems to me that we are starting to find out.
About 7 or 8 years ago I read an article in this weird Canadian technology magazine that ended up going out of business several weeks later. The article was about a bunch of the same things that I’ve talked about here and there was one bit in it that always stuck with me. I lost track of the magazine for years, and despite a number of attempts to track it down online, it wasn’t until recently that I found it in an old box of books and finally got a chance to re-read it. I’ll just paste it in here so you can see for yourself, copyright be damned…
And what the heck, I’m in a charitable mood so let me fire up the old scanner and share the rest of the article with you as well.
Good stuff, right? And as if this wasn’t long enough already, let me just leave you with a couple of videos…
It is an outright statement of differentiating values – expressed not through free speech, not through permitted demonstration – but in guerilla fashion with absolutely no accountability. The very organization of CM is setup in distributed cellular fashion so as to obviate the possibility of anyone being held to account for the misdeeds of those participating.
BINGO! To me it’s the “distributed cellular” setup of CM that makes it so powerful, but also so controversial. As Americans, and members of democratic society at large, we’re all brought up believing in the idea that there is a “system” in place and whether we’re for it or against it, its existence cannot be questioned. The “system” allows us to transfer accountability, both good and bad, to symbolic entities and figureheads. Hate the Tea Party? Blame Glenn Beck. Love your iPhone? Thank god for Steve Jobs! But what’s lost in this process is the understanding that all organizations are composed of individuals acting out of their own free will. Probably the reason we choose to ignore this is that it’s really fucking complicated (and often scary) to deal with thousands of distinct individuals, as opposed to a centralized organization. Consider the record industry trying to prevent piracy by suing individual downloaders or the DEA trying to fight drugs by jailing end users. If all these folks belonged to some kind of organization, “United Drug Users” or “Local Downloaders 451″ then the solution would be much easier! Similarly, if the CPD could simply call up the “President of Critical Mass” and ask him to tell CM riders to obey stop lights, then I’m sure the antagonism between motorists & cyclists would be greatly reduced. But because this isn’t possible, the two “groups” are forced to confront each other as individuals. It’s not something that we’re terribly good at (hence the screaming) but it’s an absolutely essential part of being human.
tl;dr CM is divisive because it represents anarchy and disorder, which can be either incredibly empowering or frightening, depending on your personality & perspective.
(FYI, I could go on for days about the *other* socio-political implications of Critical Mass, but I think this is the crux of it…)
So I accidentally bought 2 tickets instead of only 1 for a recent Cinematic Titanic event I went to. When I contacted TicketWeb about the issue & asked for a refund on one of the tickets they wrote back the next day, saying: “Thank you for contacting Ticketweb, we are happy to assist you! We apologize but we are not able to refund or exchange your tickets due to our sales policy: All Sales Are Final once the order is processed and complete.”
So I responded:
Well I guess you must not be very happy then because that didn’t assist me at all. I had hoped you guys would be a little bit forthcoming in the customer service department that Ticketmaster & co. but I guess there’s just something about selling event tickets that’s incompatible with treating your customers decently. Have you become the very thing you hate? Looks like it. Anyway, it’s not worth $25 to me to keep on arguing about this so I’m just going to consider it a donation to the fine folks at Cinematic Titanic who actually do make a point of creating a quality product for their fans instead of living off transaction fees like a pimp or a parasitic leech. Enjoy your long, slow ride into mediocrity and obscurity!
Honestly I’m really not that angry about it, but clearly the customer service department over there is asleep at the wheel so I thought I’d lend a hand. =D
The first time I visited Amsterdam I stayed at a hostel called The Flying Pig on the outskirts of the central city, near the Vondelpark and the van Gogh museum. After spending a day rambling around the various cafes, museums & shops in the city I returned to the hostel one evening only to find my entry barred by a robot… of sorts. Most people would probably think of it as less of a robot and more of a keyless entry touchpad, but after having a brief discussion with the automaton I’m inclined to give it a bit more credit. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: 5 – 4 – 2 – 1
Robot: ["beep beep" + red light]
Me: 5 – 2 – 4 – 1
Robot: ["beep beep" + red light]
Me: Crap… 5 – 2 – 1 – 4
Robot: ["beeeeeeep"+ green light + unlock]
After finding my way down to to the bar in the basement and listening for a few minutes to the variety of multi-lingual conversations taking place around me I came to the conclusion that my interaction with the touchpad device was really no different from any of these.
When any two devices capable of input & output encounter each other, whether they be human, machine, Dutch, German, goat or buffalo, a series of questions & deductions invariably takes place. For example, “What is this? OK it’s a person so I can talk to him. Except… I am in Japan & I don’t speak Japanese. I wonder if he speaks English. Guess I’ll ask. Crap, no dice. OK, let’s see what we can work out via gestures…” or “Hey this is a dog! I love playing fetch with dogs, but I hate getting mauled by them. This one seems safe because he’s rolling around on his back though. Let’s see if he knows how to fetch… [throws ball] Nope.”
So, the word for this kind of process as it relates to computers & telecommunication is “handshaking” and it’s defined like this:
Handshaking is an automated process of negotiation that dynamically sets parameters of a communications channel established between two entities before normal communication over the channel begins. It follows the physical establishment of the channel and precedes normal information transfer.
In other words, when one fax machine talks to another, the “crazy noises” you hear at the beginning of the call is actually a weird computer-ese version of the human-human or human-animal process described above. It’s like:
And once that’s done, the magic (…of fax) happens. Or doesn’t happen, depending on whether the fax machine has found another of its kind or just an angry old man who doesn’t know what’s going on (in which case the fax machine will just keep calling him back every 5 minutes because fax machines have really weird senses of humor).
There are forms of “handshaking” for dogs (“Let me sniff your butt. No, let me sniff YOUR butt.”) and birds (Strut, strut, strut… PLUMAGE!!) and babies (Will this book fit in my mouth? No. Well then… “SCREEEEEEEAAAAAAAMMMMMMM!!!!!!”) but the ones I find the most interesting are those that take place between humans and machines. The old man and the fax machine. Me and the hostel keypad.
What my conversation with the keypad made me realize is that every single element in the design of something like a keypad (or a website or a videogame) plays some part in either facilitating or confusing the process of handshaking & communication. Should the keypad be shaped like a phone keypad or a single row of numbers? Should it beep once for an error and twice for a correct entry or the other way around? Should a fax machine immediately start BEEEEEEEPING loudly when someone picks up? Why couldn’t it announce “This is a fax machine!” in English first before launching directly into it’s own robotic language? And so on.
As a guy whose job it is to help design websites, games and other such products, I believe it’s very important to think carefully about this sort of thing, and to be aware how your assumptions about the way things are “supposed to” work might impact people who don’t share those assumptions. Because while I personally enjoy exploring confusing or experimental interfaces and learning new man-machine language dialects, I also understand that this is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Kevin Kelly knows a thing or two about good journalism, so when I saw on his blog that he had posted a list of “The Best Magazine Articles Ever” (as nominated by the readers of said blog) I knew that I was in for a treat! Several of the articles I had read before, but quite a few were ones that I had meaning to get to for awhile & so I decided to take advantage of the rare summer-y weather in San Francisco this weekend to get outside & read them on my nook (via instapaper!)
Two articles that I found particularly awesome were this one:
Because despite being written 38 and 65 (!!!) years ago they have both not only proven to be completely prophetic about the development of the internet and the videogame industry to date, but they also serve as a reminder how how much important work remains to be done in both fields!
ps. OK, a little more jibber jabber… If you’re looking for suggestions on where to go after the previously mentioned articles I’d also highly recommend David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster“, Michael Lewis’s “The End“, Bill Joy’s “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” and Atul Gawande’s “Letting Go“. And if you find any other awesome ones, let me know in the comments!
Mr. Ebert, for years now, you have been making the case that video games, the most popular entertainment medium of the 21st century, are not “art”, while film, the most popular entertainment medium of the 20th century, is. Subjectively, we all can (and will) argue this point until the world runs out of oil and both these media are rendered obsolete, but in the meantime let’s approach the issue quantitatively & see where it leads.
First of all, let me give you a bit of background about myself. I was a college film student who ended up working in the game industry for several years before making the jump into tech & marketing and so I hope I can speak on these matters from a position of some experience. I’m also a lover of drama, music, comedy, visual art and literature & while I don’t usually enjoy perpetuating stereotypes, one that I feel contains a grain of truth is that of the “tortured” artist. This is not to say that all artists are Van Gogh-esque nut-jobs, driven to self-mutilation by failed love affairs & the chemicals in their paints, but I *do* believe that we all make choices in life & I think no one would argue that a career in “the arts” is the most profitable or stable one that a talented and intelligent young person could choose.
In other words, people who choose to make a living from their artistic endeavors, whether filmic, dramatic, poetic or etc., are aware of the more lucrative alternatives (lawyer / doctor / social-media expert / etc.) and have instead decided to “suffer” for their art, because they value it more highly than material wealth or social status. Are we agreed upon this point, Mr. Ebert? I hope so, or this next bit is going to be a bit tedious & unconvincing.
I have before me 2 documents. One is a “2009 Salary Guide” from a freelance staffing agency that works with clients in the advertising & technology fields. The other is the “9th Annual Salary Survey” as compiled by Game Developer Magazine for their April 2010 issue. While neither of these documents can be considered definitive, I think comparing the two can offer some useful insights on the “game business”, as distinct from the broader “technology” industry, and can also support some of the hearsay and observations that I’ve collected during my time in both.
Since the nomenclature used by the gaming industry borrows (interestingly enough) more heavily from film than from technology, it will first be necessary to establish some valid correlations between job titles in the two groups. Let’s start with Project Managers (or as they’re known in games and film, “Producers”). According to the “2009 Salary Guide” provided by the staffing agency, an “Interactive Project Manager” can expect to earn a starting salary between $61,250 and $88,250 (for an average of $74,750) at the national level. Regional variances can affect these figures, with Interactive PMs in San Francisco earning between $82,687 and $119,137 to start, while those in Columbus, Ohio will fall between $58,187 and $83,837.
Moving on to the 2009 “Salary Survey” from Game Developer magazine, it’s reported that a “Producer” with up to 3 years experience will earn an average salary of only $42,000 for work that is (in my personal experience) largely indistinguishable from that of his or her “Interactive Project Manager” counterpart in tech/marketing. The same regional variances exist in the GDM survey, but comparing the national average salaries across the 2 industries, we can see that the games producer earns a full $32,750 less per year!
Now that this methodology has been established, let’s look at some other positions. On the more technical side of things, we can compare a “Programmer/Engineer” from the games industry with a “Flash Developer” on the tech/marketing side. As an aside, the game “Programmer” would probably consider this a rather insulting comparison, but “Flash Developer” is the best match I’ve got in the “Salary Guide”. In any case, the video game “Programmer” (with up to 3 years experience) earns an average of $54,975, while the tech/marketing “Flash Developer” starts at $75,625, a difference of $20,650.
Next we come to the “artists” themselves, who work mainly with 3D modeling & animation tools these days. In the games industry the average salary for a “3D Artist” starts at $45,200, while in tech & marketing this figure is $64,375, for a difference of $19,175.
And let’s not even talk about QA (Quality Assurance) or Strategy & Business Development.
So what my point in rattling off all these statistics? It’s this… My friends in the gaming industry are some of the smartest, most talented, industrious and sensible people I know & it is safe to assume they are all fully aware that more lucrative career options exist in other fields. Despite this, they have *chosen* to work in game development for some pretty damn good reasons. Chief among these, and the one which makes their blood boil at your remarks, Mr. Ebert, is that they, along with millions of people around the world, all share a deep-seated belief that the work they are doing has value beyond the purely commercial, that the experiences created over late nights of pizza and Dr. Pepper are reaching, and having an emotional impact on, a massive audience, and that they are all doing their part to help us understand the meaning & possibilities of life on this planet, and beyond, over the next 100 years.
Surely this effort is worth a few thousand dollars a year, and *surely* it is deserving of some artistic recognition, wouldn’t you agree?
Thank you for your time,
P.S. On the outside chance that you actually read this *and* get to the end, I’d like to take the opportunity to second the recommendation of everyone on the internet who has commented on your previous blogs to suggest that you take 5 minutes and play Jason Rohrer’s “Passage” for Mac/PC/Linux and I will also add that the 2008 Wii title “de Blob” (originally conceived by students from the Utrecht School of the Arts) is also worth a look. Finally, you should, if you are not already, absolutely be aware of Keita Takahashi’s 2004 classic “Katamari Damacy” for PS2 & Steve Meretzky’s “A Mind Forever Voyaging” from 1985.
Hey can you guys do me a favor and help bring this Kickstarter project over the finish line? It’s not my own project, but I really dig all the comics this guy has created over the past 15 years or so & I’d like to see him make a lot more of them soon! In case you need some convincing, here are 5 awesome panels that link to 5 awesome stories on the Electric Sheep Comix site. So come on and cough up a few bucks and be a part of INTERNET HISTORY already, OK!?! Thanks!