Designing Metal

It was a w00t moment. It was all the way up.

“You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?”

— Nigel Tufnel
Caricature of Derek Smalls as played by Harry Shearer
Not Nigel Tufnel

First, research and competitive analysis. I pressed the power button on my trusty MacBook Pro, the dulcet tone of the logic board yawning to life. With my client seated next to me slurping on a Pepsi, we surfed the Interwebz. He wanted to incorporate existing design concepts into a new guitar build. Being a fan of heavy metal, it had to have a particular look and feel. It had to be ‘metal.’1

To create a ‘metal’ guitar, you have to place yourself in a unique state of gracelessness. Metal is studded leather and motorcycles, feedback and booze, fractured rainbows and epileptic bunnies frolicking in the Power Tools section of the third aisle of Home Depot.2 Metal is a thunderstorm of angles, offset with sweeping, melodic curves. It’s everywhere filled to the brim with nowhere.

“Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”

— Nigel Tufnel

My client went so far as to craft a wooden mock-up of the guitar to insure it cradled comfortably in his lap. The lower hook opposite the neck offered issue. We wanted to be certain it wouldn’t pierce his leg while playing.3 This guitar need to look the part but we didn’t want to be too clever with it.

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

— Nigel Tufnel
  1. ‘Metal’ in feel. For example, when looking at a photo of Britany Spears, she isn’t ‘metal’ – though in the past one could deduce she might be punk after shaving her melon.
  2. The Power Tools section of Home Depot is actually located in aisle 2 near electrical. If you can’t find it, ask for Phil.
  3. Ironically, this would be very ‘metal’.

.community

In the 70’s, most kids I knew wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. The romance of walking on the moon sparkled with a Hollywood sheen. Space travel was our great aspiration to break the chains of gravity on our beautiful, blue pearl of a planet. Every kid wanted to embrace that romance.

Now, most kids would rather be YouTubers. Rather than ascend to the Heavens, children deep dive into the rich, dangerous landscapes of the Internet. It’s a different adventure entirely amongst the plump zeroes and emaciated ones that comprise the unreal estate of the Web. The romance is changing from aspirational to commercial. Kids are replacing the freezing vacuum of space with real-time social burnout viewed by a worldwide community that’s not quite communal and a bit less than worldly. Don’t believe me? Just review the comments section.

Online communities propelled by social media platforms offer an unprecedented form connectivity. They are catalyzed by entrepreneurship wrapped in capitalism. It rewards prolific posting rather than profound publishing. I don’t believe this is explicitly bad or good, just business as usual. All things being equal, quantity trumps quality.

Quantity is rooted in the attention economy: retinas are revenue. Attention is retention. Popularity breeds income culminating in a bizarre, digital welfare state exploiting our culture’s fascination with celebrity status. The more often you post, the more often you reap the rewards of that communication, either social or financial (or both). Quality be damned, I must publish: if the world doesn’t see me, if I don’t stay ‘out there’, I’m lost in the noise — a dinosaur in a world of mammals.

But which mammals own the world? This dynamic is reflected, funhouse-like, in the fact that social networks own their communities. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, Pinterest, all preen bizarre caricatures of real world community as though words, however thoughtful, can replace presence. They partner with both paid and unpaid creators. Social media networks subsidize publishing with community.

These platforms clearly recognize the power and privilege of community. They do not permit users with large follower counts to export those followers and pursue other distribution channels. There are no nomads on the Internet, just surfers walking the same beaches, capitalizing on the same tasty waves. The community, free to enter individually at anytime, is trapped in that beach. You can check in, but you can’t check out if it costs us ‘likes’. In the larger digital landscape, social is not just status—it is leverage.

Social is the new gravity, chains and all.

The Right to Amplify

Ben Thompson offers interesting and informative scaffolding for deplatforming hate speech on the Internet in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings.

“None of this is easy. I am firmly in the camp that argues that the Internet is something fundamentally different than what came before, making analog examples less relevant than they seem.

“The risks and opportunities of the Internet are both different and greater than anything we have experienced previously, and perhaps the biggest mistake we can make is being too sure about what is the right thing to do.”

Ben Thompson

To my eyes, Thompson is correct. The Internet is fundamentally new: the price to amplify your communications is almost zero. Historically, publishing was an expensive endeavor, its gatekeepers mostly understood its responsibilities.

The gatekeepers are gone now, disintermediated into a new profession. The game has changed.

We Are All Celebrities Now

Anil Dash has published technology articles on the Internet for 20 years now. It’s hard to comprehend the dedication, the sheer act of will to consistently publish technology insights for that amount of time. More, it’s baffling the amount of change he has witnessed in technology during those two decades. It’s a staggering achievement.

Celebrating this, he published a well-considered article concerning some of the lessons he’s learned. One struck me as particularly poignant:

“always write with the idea that what you’re sharing will live for months and years and decades…”

– Anil Dash

Words to live by, though he avoids using the word ‘publish’. It seems more important than ever to make certain everyone understands the gravity of its meaning. You are speaking with whatever world is out there: good, bad or indifferent. One of the challenges of communicating with the world is that we dance with words in unique and often disingenuous ways. ‘Post’ is an innocuous word. It sounds almost cute.

The Ascent of Man

Jacob Bronowski’s magnum opus is an affectionate and literary hat-tip to our species. In the forward of the book, he shares the story by which the BBC contacted him to create a television companion piece to parrot concepts lovingly expressed in the book. Through this story, Bronowski offers a comparative lens through which ideas are deployed through television:

“Television is an admirable medium for exposition in several ways: powerful and immediate to the eye, able to take the spectator boldly into the places and processes that are described, and conversational enough to make him conscious that what he witnesses are not events but the actions of people.

“It is addressed to two or three people in a room, as a conversation face to face—a one-sided conversation for the most part, as the book is, but homely and Socratic nonetheless. The printed book has one added freedom beyond this: it is not remorselessly bound to the forward direction of time, as any spoken discourse is.”

Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Technopoly

I woke up early this morning. Apparently, one of the doldrums of age is losing the ability to sleep in on the weekends. It’s a bit of a bummer, but not entirely worthless. So I decided to finish reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. It’s an excellent book piecing through and connecting the larger abstracts of modern day culture. Technopoly is an idea book with an entirely different form of narrative, ending on the following notes:

“Those who resist the American Technopoly are people:

– who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

– who have freed themselves from the belief of the magical power of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

– who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding.”

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Technopoly is written by Postman as a bit of a rallying cry. His primary concern is a peripheral cultural subversion by way of the inescapable drive towards technology. Even the technology of numbers. We often use statistical analysis to determine the direction towards success without often considering the myriad factors that co-opt that success. Numbers are the beginning of wisdom, not its end.

To illustrate this, Postman offers various examples, the most poignant of which involves politics. So enamored are politicians with polling that they often allow those numbers to drive decision-making (for a cogent example, refer to the 2016 United States election). If that is, in fact, the case why do we need politicians? We are electing them to lead society, yet the decision-making process has devolved into simple numbers assessments. Policy by polling. Where in this equation is the leadership? Where is the vision?

On Reading

“I had accidentally discovered one of the great disadvantages of books (a medium that is not exactly short on disadvantages at the moment). There is no team of brilliant and vaguely sinister engineers, cooking up ways to get you binge reading. There is no auto-play technology frictionlessly delivering you from one chapter of the novel you’re reading to the next.

There is only you, alone in the silence of your room with a chapter break before you and your phone cooing at you from the dresser.” 

Ben Dolnick, Author and Opinion Columnist, New York Times

“All Empires Vanish”

Wired’s Virginia Heffernan writes an excellent, concise brief on Sheryl Sandberg, the embattled Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of Lean In. Heffernan stages the piece in a interesting way1, focussing not on a #meToo angle or tangentially the feminist perspective though Sandberg’s brand effuses both. 

Instead, Heffernan posits Sandberg’s failure is one of vanity and hubris, not femininity. No single human can do what Sandberg is trying to do: capitalize on self-publishing within the framework of moral obligation.

Facebook has democratized publishing for the world. While there are a litany of technical challenges to this, two ideological problems stand out:

  1. The world is untrained in the importance of self-editing. Newspapers, though gasping and choking now, quickly learned the symbiotic importance between writing and editing.
  2. Capitalism is not good for democracy. Bad actors exploit self-publishing for financial and political gain. There are numerous financial incentives in doing so.

Facebook didn’t know what it was getting into. If it did, its leadership is sadly incompetent2. If it didn’t, its leadership is naive of the war-ravaged political and historical context of publishing. Facebook is not a service, as its marketing collateral unequivocally states. It is a publishing platform.

Act accordingly.


  1. Heffernan benefits from contributing articles to Politico, so she is keenly aware of the political lens through which stories can be viewed.
  2. It’s fashionable in the current media landscape to attack Facebook. It’s also fair to say that Facebook’s accomplishments are amazing from a technical standpoint. But there is historical context for the dangers posed by publishing. Adding the layer of publishing for an untrained everyone increases the complexity and severity of those dangers.

Driven

Alphabet’s Waymo division is testing driverless taxis within a limited operating area of Arizona. Apart from the overt business advantages of this technology, I’m still trying to understand how driverless vehicles make life better. I’m certain there are incredibly bright people working on this technology, but I often think that technology should fundamentally support that singular goal: improve life.

Major challenges remain, starting with technical hurdles. A Waymo One taxi tested by Reuters last week proved slow and jerky at times.

Alexandria Sage for Reuters

Slow and jerky is just a bug — a smaller experiential piece that can be addressed over time. The more alarming bit of Sage’s piece:

“Waymo is now accelerating … because if they wait two or three years longer they will get overtaken,” Froehlich said on the sidelines of last week’s Los Angeles auto show. “So they have to move early, even though that’s quite a risky thing for them.”

Klaus Froehlich, BMW’s global head of development

The race to be first to market when you have not only your business to consider but the lives of customers in your hands is disturbing. We’re living in a period of history wherein technology doesn’t necessarily work as prescribed. If you want to find at a plausible culprit for technological failure, I’d start with the rush to market.