Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wearable Parasite

1. Get It On

The “next big thing in computing” isn’t big at all, and it doesn’t look a lot like computing. It looks like nerd gear - weird glasses or a calculator watch. As innocuous and friendly as “wearables” seem, something about them chafes. I worry that once on, they will quickly become difficult to take -- or turn -- off.

You hold this in your hand, then press it against your face.
In the last few years, computers have multiplied and appeared at all levels of society in the guise of smartphones. Latest estimates suggest smartphone penetration is at 66% of US mobile users.

Smartphone use grew by a staggering 25% between 2013 and 2014, with 1.76 billion people now carrying around small computers everywhere.

These numbers are even higher in developed countries, where soon more than 50% of people will have at least one smartphone.

The old, big computers were used by government or business for the most difficult and important tasks. Humans use these new tiny computers for everything: Communicating with voice and text. Looking up information and finding answers. Buying things. Recording the world around us. Entertainment. Directions.

After just a few short years, small hand-held computers have become so common they are almost invisible, ubiquitous, and indispensable.

But even these devices are still an intermediate larval stage of computing technology. Historical and current industry trends make it clear: The wondrous shiny black rectangles we all carry will soon disappear. They will undergo a kind of metamorphosis, and move onto us in the form of “wearables”.

The Apple Watch
Several factors are driving the evolution of computing to wearable form. The simplest is market forces: Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and all the other technology titans need to keep selling things to survive.

The 18-month smartphone turnover doesn’t drive enough growth. With smartphones reaching saturation points in many markets and tablets not far behind, something new is needed.

Enter wearables: Initially extensions of computers, and soon full computers themselves, that you don’t go to or sit in front of or hold. Instead, you put them on your body. You wear them.

Google has Google Glass (for your face) and Android Wear (for your far). Apple has the “Apple Watch”. Companies like Oculus and Sony are developing virtual reality headsets for your head, eyes, and ears. Fitbit and Jawbone have crude “fitness trackers” that sit on your wrist or in your pocket, with Apple building similar functions directly into their mobile operating system (and Google sure to follow).
By re-framing technology not as a tool, but as a fashion item, these companies open the door to selling multiple devices to people. You may not need 5 different hammers, but how many pairs of shoes do you have? How many pairs of glasses?
Google Glass with fashion frames

If you’re reading this article, odds are you already have at least one smartphone and at least one laptop or desktop...and you probably have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop for work, and another computer at home.

That’s 4 computers right there, and “whether or not it goes with your outfit” hasn’t entered the picture. Yet.

Another reason is convenience: People like having their hands free. Smartphones are great, but they require the use of one or both hands, and typically full visual attention. This is distracting for the user, and makes use of the device obvious. It’s hard to use a smartphone discreetly, or without gazing directly at it, and that imposes social costs.

More convenience: Even though mobile phones are the last thing people see at night and the first thing they reach for in the morning, people still forget them because the phones are literally not tied to them. Once you are wearing your computer on your body somehow, as a watch, eyeglasses, or underwear, you are less likely to forget it somewhere. You want your computer -- which is your contacts, your calendar, your memory, your camera, your work, your entertainment -- with you all the time.

The companies making the computers want it with you all the time, too. Finally, this evolution is being driven by a collective industry and consumer desire for more computing and network access - more frequency, more depth, more intimacy.

These new platforms will offer new ways for computers to “help” us - to tell us what we want, to tell us what to do, to literally hold our hands.

 I have a latest generation smartphone. I wear a fitness tracker. I work in the technology industry. And yet, I find these wearables increasingly uncomfortable.

2. What Is A Parasite?

A parasite is an organism that lives in or on a host organism and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. You can immediately think of examples that gross you out a bit: Ticks. Lice. Tapeworms. Fleas. Leeches. Nearly all inherently repulsive. There are even creepier, worse examples. Many parasites actually redirect the behavior of the host to do things the host would not normally do. It might make the host engage in very dangerous behavior, or expend resources in finding ways to feed the parasite. This is some serious nightmare fuel. I look down at the tracker encircling my wrist. It resembles a large black worm.
The Jawbone UP fitness tracker
I think about the woman I saw driving on the freeway last week, with her offspring in the back seat. At 60 mph, in rush hour traffic, she was staring at her phone. Or the parents at the park, now staring at their smartphones more than their children, who merit only the occasional glance. People who drive off the road because Maps told them to, even when those directions were obviously wrong. Dangerous behavior.

I think of the businessmen and women I see in airports, sitting on cold dirty floors, with a power tendril extended from their device into the outlets previously used by cleaning staff. Prior to smartphones, nobody would ever do something so undignified.

At restaurants, I look around and see people staring at screens, not other people. Even in movie theaters -- when you’ve literally paid a premium to stare at one screen -- people are staring at their phones instead. Things they would not normally do.

The analogy extends in more disturbing ways. The parasite’s favorite strategy is known as “parasitic castration”. This lovely phrase means the parasite destroys or damages its host’s reproductive abilities in order to divert resources from the host’s reproduction and funnel them to the parasite and its offspring.

You strap the Oculus Rift to your face, over your eyes
Maybe the Apple Watch isn’t there yet, but tech companies including Apple will now pay women to freeze their eggs -- to put a woman’s own reproduction on ice in favor of the company’s growth . This is positioned as (and “intended” as) a benefit to the woman and her family.

Some parasites redirect their host’s sexual behavior. Aside from how the latest wearable technology becomes a status symbol, used by humans to evaluate a mate’s desirability, there’s a direct imposition of this technology as mediator of sex in the form of apps like Tinder and Down.

At least that's still sex with another human. The virtual reality headset crew has been discussing "teledildonics" for decades. Having sex with machines is still in crude stages, and still a kink, but it’s easy to see it evolving rapidly to being equivalent to masturbation in every respect, and eventually preferable to dealing with messy humans, in much the same way we’d rather go to an ATM than deal with a bank teller.

“Wearable” begins to take on a new meaning.

I think about the massive redirection of resources to reproduction of these computers. There were nearly 2 billion smartphones sold in 2013. Smartphones barely existed 6 years ago. When you factor in all the smartphones made, humans have already produced more computers in the last 5 years than there are humans alive today. Our time, resources, and energy, all going to help these “creatures” reproduce and evolve. The addition of (or shift to) wearables only accelerates this growth.

If you’re not working in or with tech, you’re not a part of the growing, lively, evolving economy. Even jobs that don’t seem directly related are either becoming mediated by, or replaced by, wearable technology. Your personal trainer becomes a black band around your wrist, and it’s always reminding you to work out. Your car driver is now guided by a mobile device or headset, and dispatched by algorithm. Your hotelier, your food delivery, your grocery store -- technology is already in the middle, and reaching further out.

These wearables are parasites. We’re not wearing them, they’re wearing us.

3. Hard To Swallow

This external parasitism is only the beginning.

The Epidermal Electronic System (EES)
These computers will also move inside us in various ways - we’ll swallow them, embed them under our skin, and attach them to our bodies in ways only imagined in science fiction. Early implementations already exist. We’ve already started.

Not only will computers be inside of us, we’ll soon be inside of them in a reprise of computing’s earliest building-sized days.

Our skies will be filled with swarms of autonomous drones, ranging from microscopic to bird-sized, all networked and equipped with visual and auditory sensors.

Our homes, offices, and vehicles will become one big network.

 We already wander through a web of near-constant wireless connectivity. As the “internet of things” propagates and expands, the world becomes our computer hive, and us the insects within it.

For the moment, we still have a choice. We can put the phone down, take off the glasses, unshackle ourselves from the watch.

But soon, once the computers are deep inside of us, or we become more fundamentally attached to them, we will no longer have the option to remove them, and perhaps not even the option to turn them off.

The worm on my wrist rattles. That means its battery is low. I open my bag, find the custom adaptor I carry for it, and plug it into a nearby outlet. A green light slowly pulses, as though it is sleeping softly while sucking electricity from the grid. It will rattle again when it’s full, and I am supposed to put it back on.

I wait patiently.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Most People Don't Care About Musician Income

This article summarizes it nicely: Most people don't care about musician's income from streaming services, or elsewhere.

There are a few simple reasons. One is the perception that musicians fall into one of 2 categories:

1. You are a rock star, flying around in a solid-gold Lear jet, making millions, living large, for "not doing that much", working a few hours a day. As Dire Straits said, "That ain't workin', that's the way ya do it. Money for nothin' and your chicks for free."

In this case, you're doing so well already that it shouldn't matter if a few people steal your music, because you're already rich.

2. You suck. Either your act just isn't good enough, or you haven't put in whatever "hard work" is required to build a fan base and "make it". And it's probably the former.

In this scenario, not only do you not "deserve" any money, but your music probably isn't even worth stealing, and you should be thrilled if anyone even listens to it.

In general, regardless of what you do, if you start a conversation with anyone saying "man, my job is so hard and I am so underpaid", you are unlikely to get a response of "you are so right, I agree, your life is so much harder than mine, it is so unfair".

You are far more likely to get a "welcome to the world, son", or a diatribe about how you actually have it far easier than me/teachers/someone else. When was the last time someone told you their job was easy and/or they were paid too much?

It gets worse.

Reading the article, you'll see that only 60% of consumers said they felt music was worth paying for. At all. That should make everyone in the music business extremely worried.

Some of this is the music businesses' own fault: they've spent years allowing many free music services on the internet and elsewhere to provide more than enough free music to satisfy fans. Major artists have given away singles and albums.

Years of mixed messages about the legality of downloads and streaming, companies being "illegal" and then legal, and blogs and websites offering authorized and unauthorized downloads have confused customers while simultaneously setting the expectation that if you want free music, it's out there, and probably legal.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Max Friedenberg (1968 - 2014)

Max Friedenberg died a few days ago. He was 45 years old.

Max was my friend. At Langley High School, he was the singer for my first real band. Max taught me a lot about performing. I became a singer and frontperson in no small measure because of how easy he made it seem. I learned to write songs in a band with him (and Darow Han, Howard Olsen, Spencer Lamb, and Brian Johnston). Max made me realize that songwriting wasn't impossible -- you could write a song right now. "C'mon, let's do it. I have an idea." And then we'll write another one, whether this one is good or not.

Max was charming and funny. Well-liked, and well-known in school. The sort of guy who'd stop the bullies with humor. The sort of guy who would give you a ride home.

We dated some of the same girls in high school. If I remember correctly, we even simultaneously dated sisters. We hung out a bit less after he went off to American University (he was a year ahead of me).

When I was in college and starting to plan my move to L.A. to make it big in the music business, Max was already there, again, years ahead of me.

Max was the lead singer for a band named Clyde (Scots/Gaelic for "heard from afar", and thus, presumably loud and powerful). Clyde were a sort of Christian Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were playing shows with bands like Fishbone, No Doubt, Jane's Addiction, Thelonious Monster, Mary's Danish, Hole, Lock Up (Tom Morello's pre-Rage band) and pretty much everyone else. You may not recognize all of those names today, but in the early 1990s, that was a "who's who" of the L.A. scene.

Clyde had made their own album, produced by Earle Mankey. Geffen and Elektra were in a bidding war for them. The band was regularly packing and selling out clubs like the Roxy and the Whisky A Go Go.

Max said "no problem, man, I'll show you around. It'll be great. We'll get you guys to open for us".

And then, just a couple months before I was going to graduate and move out there, Max called me up. He sounded different on the phone.

He told me he'd had a mental breakdown. Moved back in with his parents in DC. He asked if I could come by and visit.

I hung out with Max at his parents' home before I went off to L.A in the summer of 1991. He wished me luck, and said he'd hoped to get back out there at some point. I found my way to and around L.A. without his guidance and wisdom. A story for another time.

Max was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed bi-polar. He had to quit his band, just as all of his years of work were about to pay off. The once in a lifetime shot, un-fired.

I think about how difficult it must have been for Max to step down from that kind of moment and pressure and chance.

Perhaps even more difficult, he had to wrestle with this: He thought he had a divine vision, a God experience, something that forever changed his life and worldview. That experience led him to convert to Christianity and power Clyde. Now the doctors were saying "all that stuff you thought was god -- and maybe all of your creativity -- was actually just mental illness."

I can't think of too many things more heartbreaking. I wove a modified version of that and our other experiences into the back-story for Sid Luscious and The Pants, as a way to pay tribute to my friend, and immortalize our days together .

Max moved to New Mexico in 1992 and had resided there ever since. He stopped doing music in favor of painting. In his words:

I became devoutly secular, thanked God for His time, but left Him with the rest of the band. I became a Buddhist. Later, I dumped Buddha for Philip K. Dick. Later I dumped Philip K. Dick and now I'm into Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstadter...all else I can say is "the band broke up, but I stayed together."

Not long after I wrote a long piece about our Langley days, influences, and "Where Are They Now" in 2012, Max and I reconnected.

If you scroll down to the end of that piece, you can read some comments that Max wrote about his situation. He talks directly about his bipolar disorder, and his ongoing struggle with depression.

In our email exchanges, Max told me he was writing lyrics and songs and thinking about getting back into music. Perhaps we would even collaborate again.

I regret not leaping at that chance when it was offered. I regret not visiting my old friend.

Max, I wish you well on your journey. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for the music.

Max, singing at Langley High School (1987).