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Piracy

October 24th, 2014 · 1 Comment

When are you allowed to pirate something?

These days, I rarely pirate anything at all. I subscribe to Spotify and Amazon Prime, and I pay the BBC TV Licence Fee. I buy all my books, apps, and games from Apple and Amazon; these are all unimaginably affordable compared to just a couple of decades ago, when a Nintendo 64 game easily cost £80/$130 in today’s money.

I usually see movies at the cinema but will occasionally buy blurays if it’s something special (plus I get screeners from BAFTA); and because I don’t watch much TV any more, I can get by with intermittent subscriptions to Netflix for the purposes of binge-watching Parks and Rec or similar.

That leaves one major exception: US TV shows that aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. I believe the only way of legally watching shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, True Detective, etc., in a timely fashion in the UK is by subscribing to Sky, who have bought up the rights to the most popular US shows. Sky is not cheap, especially if you’re only using it to watch literally one or two series a week.

In the absence of any way to buy the episodes outright via Apple or Amazon, I download a couple of shows a week. To assuage my guilt, I try to buy the shows when they finally go on sale in the UK. I suppose I could be more patient and just wait, but we live in a global village these days and I like to understand what my friends in the US are talking about when it comes to popular culture.

Things were different when I was a teenager and at university. There was no Spotify or Netflix, no Amazon Prime or iTunes TV Store. I also didn’t have much money. Accordingly, I pirated pretty much everything other than apps and games, which were a hassle to deal with.

Most of the stuff was poor quality such I’ve since deleted the files or obtained legal copies; but that doesn’t fix everything. I don’t regard piracy as a particularly bad sin – digital content is non-rivalrous and so the concept of ‘theft’ doesn’t apply – but I do think it shows wilful ignorance at best, and contempt at worst, towards artists.

In the olden days (90s and 2000s), you could attempt to justify piracy by claiming – somewhat truthfully – that only a tiny percentage of the sale price actually made it back to the artist. Putting aside the way this devalues the contribution of all the non-artists involved and the fact that even a tiny percentage is better than zero, the fact is that marketplaces like Steam, iTunes, and Amazon provide many artists with substantially higher cuts, from 35% to 70% and beyond. It’s much less palatable to advocate piracy when there’s no question you’re harming the artist financially.

The other argument was that a lot of desirable content was DRMed or not available in certain regions or on certain platforms. That is still the case for a few things including my beloved TV shows, but it’s much less common. As for DRM, it’s effectively vanished from purchased music, and the rise of tightly-integrated digital ecosystems owned by Apple, Amazon, and Google has taken the sting out of DRMed apps and video, for better or worse. I don’t like books being DRMed, but that’s not a good enough excuse for me to not buy them. Having said that, I feel absolutely no guilt in downloading un-DRMed versions of content I’ve already bought – not for sending to friends, but for consuming on incompatible ecosystems.

Today, I atone for the piratical sins of my youth by supporting new artists on Kickstarter. Every single penny counts when you’re starting out, so I like to pay things forward.

Update: @simonth reminds me that Agents of SHIELD is on Channel 4, albeit a few episodes behind.

→ 1 CommentTags: adrian · tech · tv

Brain Training Games Don’t Work

October 24th, 2014 · No Comments

A few days ago, 73 scientists signed a letter asserting that brain training games – which typically feature puzzle games and mental exercises on smartphones, tablets, PCs, or handheld devices – do not successfully increase general measures of intelligence or memory.

I have long had my doubts about the efficacy of games like Brain Age in improving general intelligence. Doing simple arithmetic exercises, in my mind, only improves your ability to… do simple arithmetic. Supposedly there are some mental exercises you can do to improve working memory, such as the n-back task, but these are really quite difficult and not fun to do. Still, I have not been a practising neuroscientist or experimental psychologist for several years, so I didn’t feel qualified to comment.

I suggest you read the whole letter in full, or failing that, the Guardian’s summary (which also handily includes responses from game developers) but there are some important excerpts that are worth considering:

It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are “designed by neuroscientists” at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.

Too many times have I seen apps and games that use the badge of being ‘designed by neuroscientists’ as a mark of efficacy and quality. It makes me sick. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but they are being misleading. Just as often, I see game designers trot out a long list of papers of varying quality that are barely relevant to the actual experience being offered. This also makes me sick.

…we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults. Given that the effects of playing the games tend to be task-specific, it may be advisable to train an activity that by itself comes with benefits for everyday life.

Another drawback of publicizing computer games as a fix to deteriorating cognitive performance is that it diverts attention and resources from prevention efforts. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle.

People shouldn’t play sudoku or solve crosswords or go to the bingo in the belief that they make you smarter. They should do them because they’re fun. If you want to improve your cognitive health, do a range of mental tasks and be physically active – there is lots of good research demonstrating this works. Unfortunately, this is more time consuming and tiring than sitting at home playing on a smartphone, and thus is a harder sell.

Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.

Like I say, read the whole letter.

On a related note, another thing that makes me sick are the pseudoscience apps I regularly see in the Top Health and Fitness category these days, including “Hypnotic Gastric Band” and the endless apps that promise to reduce your stress and anxiety. In some ways, these are no worse than self-help books that have been with us forever; but I think the veneer of science and professionalism delivered by the App Store and by the whole ‘quantified self’ industry is encouraging people to believe in effects that are not proven to exist. More on this another time.

→ No CommentsTags: edu · games · neuro · psych · science

2001 and Master and Commander

October 22nd, 2014 · No Comments

Next month, the BFI is releasing a new digital transfer of 2001. I will be there.

Quite apart from the fact that even a big TV can’t replicate the ultra-widescreen experience required to properly appreciate 2001, I think that most normal people – myself included – are incapable of paying sufficient attention to the movie unless forced to do so in a dark cinema. It’s not just that I’d want to check my phone during some of the slower bits (which, to be fair, is most of the movie); it’s that it’d be near-impossible to avoid interruptions like noise from outside, or phones ringing, or people coming and going, and so on. So, see it at the cinema. Also, live in the UK, because if you don’t, you’re out of luck.

2001 is one of the two movies that I rewatch every year or two. Specifically, the flight to the space-station, and then to the Moon:

(didn’t I tell you not to watch this at home?)

What’s the other movie? Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here’s the opening sequence:

It’s beautiful, and slow. The movie features few battles other than those against the weather. Like 2001, there is much “competence porn” wherein smart and experienced people concoct clever plans. Like 2001, it is a journey into the unknown, on board a state-of-the-art vessel with serious technical problems.

They’re both – mostly – contemplative movies punctuated by moments of sheer terror, providing an enjoyable mix of ASMR-like relaxation with adrenaline that keeps me awake. And once I’ve finished, I feel like I’ve grappled with weighty questions that concern the future of humanity. What more could you want?

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · film · sf

Why We Go to Starbucks

October 21st, 2014 · No Comments

At Wordstock, where I was improbably on the same (short) bill as Alex Garland and Andy Serkis, I had an interesting conversation about Starbucks.

Why do we go to Starbucks? To get coffee, of course – and maybe to get something and sit down. That’s not an interesting question. What’s interesting is why people who are explicitly unhappy or at least ambivalent about Starbucks continue to go there. There are any number of reasons to dislike Starbucks, from (perhaps) their tax avoidance policies to their mediocre coffee and their cookie-cutter similarity. And yet millions of people still go.

So, why? There’s convenience; if it’s the closest cafe to where you are, that’s a strong incentive. There’s security; if you don’t know the area, you could either go to a non-chain cafe and risk a bad experience, or go to a known quantity. Relatedly, there’s consistency; you know what you get at Starbucks. Their marketing and decor reinforces those latter two qualities; you’re meant to feel at home.

All of these reasons added together seemingly outweigh any misgivings we might have about contributing towards unethical corporate behaviour or the increasing soullessness of our high streets. If we left it there, this would be a rather depressing statement of our values, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s really nothing wrong with people wanting convenience and security and consistency. And if Starbucks provided better service or quality or costs compared to their competition, it’s not at all surprising they succeeded. Yes, we all know their tactics in flooding towns and cities with chains to extinguish the competition and then pulling out; but even today, with the rapid growth over, I still seem to gravitate to chain cafes despite the existence of alternatives.

There’s an independent cafe near where I live called Bread and Bean. It makes very good coffee and it’s in a reasonably decent location. The atmosphere is not amazing and the decor a little spartan, but it’s a pleasant enough place to read a book. I used to go to it fairly frequently until I starting shopping in another nearby area which had at least three chain cafes: Costa Coffee, Starbucks, and Harris and Hoole. I ended up going to the latter, which is, if anything, an uber-Starbucks: even more comfortable and secure.

Harris and Hoole, of course, is 49% owned by Tesco. Most people don’t know this and assume, like I did, that it’s just a really nice independent cafe. It gets the best of both worlds – it’s not Starbucks, yet it exudes the comfort and security that we all apparently want.

In the face of these well-funded chain cafes, it may be wise to simply throw up your hands and declare defeat. I mean, it’s just coffee, after all – who really cares that much about a few million in tax? But it’s not just that. These places are the new public square. It would be better if our squares weren’t all owned by massive corporations, just as it would be better if Twitter and Facebook and Google didn’t control so much of online communication.

I wonder if the recent backlash against Twitter and Facebook in the form of more ad-hoc spaces such as tilde.club and private Discourse forums point the way forward. These spaces are no less secure and consistent than Twitter thanks to the diligent efforts of their founders; they are immune against private ownership since they are open source and capable of being spun up and run on any $10/month server; and they are certainly more comfortable, not because they have fancy features, but because they lack scale and so are more able to adapt to their patrons. Every branch of Starbucks must have the same coffee and decor – that’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness.

What we need is an open source cafe blueprint; something that amateurs and semi-pros can get up and running without a massive effort, yet still provides good service and good coffee. This may, in fact, be completely impossible due to the significant differences between running a website and running a physical cafe – but of course, “software is eating the world”. Maybe we can semi-automate all the legal and financial shenanigans involved in getting a space and running a cafe; maybe we can create a framework to source all the equipment and consumables required.

And if you can do that, you can probably adapt it (with great effort) for restaurants and shops and whatever. It would be a massive effort requiring close co-operation with national and local governments and banks; probably on the scale of writing something like Unix, really.

Update: Via his related blog post, John Willshire tells me that 95% of all cafes in Australia are independently owned using some of the tactics mentioned above. Turns out we don’t need to write Unix again – hurray!

→ No CommentsTags: food

KILLER APP: The Movie

September 13th, 2014 · No Comments

We open on two college students driving through the woods at night. One is peering at the bright screen of their phone, giving directions.

“Can’t this piece of junk go any faster?”

“If you want to get out and push, you’re welcome.”

“I heard that if you get to the party before anyone else, you get, like, a lifetime supply of everything.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any other cars for the last twenty -”

The phone starts beeping.

“Holy shit, it’s here!”

The car screeches down a narrow track. They arrive at a clearing where a very expensive, very high-tech tent has been set up.

“Looks like we’re the first!”

They high-five, and sidle in.

“Hey, we’re here for the app, is there -”

Screams begin.

Smash cut to -

“KILLER APP”

We pull out from these words projected onto a massive screen. It actually says “Clear’s next Killer App” where Clear is a logo for an internet company. The screams turn into rapturous applause. We’re at a press conference, a cross between an Apple keynote and an interview.

A young Cillian Murphy is on the stage.

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“Now, did I hear you say two *billion* users?” asks the interviewer?

“Two point *one* billion users,” corrects Murphy, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone chuckles.

“What’s the secret of your success?”

“It’s simple. We created an app that helps people help each other. These are hard times, and I believe that we should always be there for our friends and family, whether that’s doing work for each other or just throwing a party together.”

“But it doesn’t hurt that you take a cut of every transaction made on the app, does it?”

“Not much,” he admits, twinkling again. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re providing a valuable service and the revenues let us improve the product and reach more and more people.”

“Earlier this year, you acquired Twitter. Everyone wants to know, who’s next? Microsoft? Facebook? Apple?”

He looks thoughtful. “How can I put this? We’re a forward-thinking company. They aren’t. I don’t want to be dragged down with dead weight.” Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: film · silly · tech

Worrying and Thinking

September 7th, 2014 · 2 Comments

Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:

  • How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
  • There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
  • How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
  • What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
  • Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
  • How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
  • What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?

These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.

Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.

I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.

→ 2 CommentsTags: adrian · politics · tech

The Podcasting Software We Deserve

September 6th, 2014 · No Comments

As summer draws to a close and the evening appears ever nearer, a young man’s fancy naturally turns to the production and distribution of podcasts.

I listen to several podcasts and I co-host The Cultures podcast with Naomi Alderman and Andrea Phillips. As such, I feel I have the bare minimum amount of experience required to examine how the process of making podcasts could be improved, across recording, editing, and publishing, in the form of an imaginary dream super-app.

Recording

If you can’t get all your hosts in the same room every week (e.g. because they’re in different cities), then you’ll need to use something like Skype to hear each other. Skype is free and easy to use, but the call quality is not perfect. For the best results, each participant should record their own microphone feed ‘locally’; these multiple feeds can then be combined later on for a much clearer sound.

As mentioned, Skype is free. Call recorders can be found for a relatively low price (free to $25), such as Rogue Ameoba’s Piezo and Audio Hijack, and Ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype. These are a little fiddly to use, but not too annoying. For The Cultures, I use Audio Hijack Pro to capture my own microphone input along with the Skype audio from Naomi and Andrea; we don’t all record locally because I don’t have the time to edit the podcast. Audio Hijack pretty straightforward but I had to play around with the mix settings a few times before getting it quite right. Certainly there weren’t any preset ‘podcast’ settings.

If we all recorded locally, as most other podcasters do, then you can multiply the fiddle-factor by three. Again, it’s not that annoying if you know how to use computers, but if you don’t, it’s a frustrating experience.

Ideally: I would like a dedicated app, let’s call it “Podsoft”, that each host would install. The app would make recording easier by automatically syncing with the other hosts (through a unique code or user auth) so that we could confirm that everyone was recording, receiving audio, and ready to go; and it would sync with online time servers to adjust for frame loss.

During the podcast, we could type in timestamped comments in a shared document (similar to Etherpad or Google Docs) which would make it easier to compile show notes and set chapter marks. Once the podcast ends, the each app syncs with Dropbox or perhaps just sends the audio file to the designated ‘master’ host automatically, thus avoiding any emailing-and-attaching-file shenanigans. Incidentally, the app would be capable to recording all participants from a single computer (similar to my current Audio Hijack setup) as a backup.

Editing

Editing can produce a tighter, more coherent podcast, and better-sounding podcast, but it takes time. For me, the choice is not between ‘no editing’ and ’some editing’, but between ‘no editing’ and ‘no podcast’. It’s different for other hosts, however.

If you get your hosts to record their audio locally, then you need to assemble those multiple audio files into a single file. On the face of it, this should be easy – just drag the files into separate Garageband tracks, line up the start times, and away you go. In practice, I’m told that frame loss means that the files can drift out of sync over the course of the podcast, which makes editing tricky. You might also want to reduce noise and control the volume so that everyone sounds equally loud.

An experienced editor can do this in their sleep, and probably has access to (or has written) scripts that automate some of these tasks. However, amateurs aren’t quite as lucky and may end up struggling through the process.

Ideally: Podsoft combines and syncs the multiple audio files automatically. It includes presets to reduce noise and normalise voices; not as well as a professional, but better than an amateur.

Publishing

Libsyn are the podcast host of choice these days, mostly because it ‘just works’ and isn’t too expensive ($5-15/month). However, their content management system looks and feels awful; I’ve made more than one mistake using it in the past.

Ideally: Podsoft allows you to compose all the podcast metadata, including title, description, image, and release data, within the app itself. When you’re ready, you hit submit and it upload it all to Libsyn without you having to deal with the website.

Cost, problems, concluding thoughts

The vast majority of podcasters don’t make any money at all, which may worry developers. Yet while I don’t make money from running, I still pay a decent amount for good trainers, because it’s an entertaining hobby that I spend a lot of time on. Likewise, podcasting is a hobby that a lot of people spend a lot of time on, and I can’t help but think they’d be willing to pay a decent amount for software that makes their lives easier and results in a better podcast.

I think people would be willing to pay around $50-100. If you sold around 1000 to 10,000, that’s not a terrible business given that it’s a Mac app with the potential for upgrade sales every couple of years.

Of course, it’s not a massive amount of money and there’s only so many podcast creators out there. The real opportunity lies in creating a Libsyn competitor – which of course would be a much easier job if you already had a great podcasting app out in the market. Then you could work on providing other services for podcasters including improved statistics, crowdfunding tools, community features, nice-looking website, and so on; not to mention improved discovery for listeners. I don’t suggest this because I hate Libsyn – it’s a decent website that works and isn’t too expensive – but it’s healthy to have competition in a market, since it improves the service.

For the avoidance of doubt, neither I nor Six to Start are about to make this app – we’re plenty busy working on other stuff. But I would love it if someone like Marco Arment or Daniel Jalkut worked on it, given their previous form (Overcast and Marsedit). We can live in hope.

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · tech

The Illusion: Digital Commissioning #5

August 27th, 2014 · 1 Comment

In my previous post, Part 4: The Pull, I talked about why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. In this post I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.

I also realise that this series has taken far too long for me to write, so I’m going to conclude it here in an accelerated fashion, which will hopefully relieve everyone concerned. That means that I have not taken quite as long to proofread or edit it. But something is better than nothing, right?

Poor Pay

Historically, I’ve found that BBC digital commissions – for apps, for websites, for games – don’t pay an awful lot. And while the pay has improved considerably in recent years, it still doesn’t recognise the significant cost involved in pitching. The BBC is not really any worse than other organisations in this regard, but pitching just sucks. I think we were pretty good, all things considered, at pitching – we had an above-average success rate at Six to Start and we won some big projects. Yet even so, we lost far more than we won, and that uncertainty made it difficult for us to hire full-time employees.

Instead, we had to use contractors and freelancers, who cost more than permanent staff and took their knowledge and experience with them when they left (making it harder to maintain projects). As a result, bigger companies that can pitch and develop for multiple projects simultaneously can significantly outperform smaller companies, which explains the drastic consolidation in digital indies of late.

Similar problems exist for indie TV producers, but the sting of pitching is lessened slightly because there’s a much greater acceptance of contract/freelance workers in that sector, and because they often get to retain some commercial rights in their shows (unlike digital indies, who usually get nothing at all).

Conversely, the cost of producing and self-publishing apps, games, websites, etc., is low and declining, so the attraction of £20k or £50k or £100k from the BBC isn’t as much as it used to be, if you can raise £30k from Kickstarter and make a decent game prototype in half a year.

Low Prestige

People will hate me for saying this, but the vast majority of digital work done by indies for the BBC isn’t even remotely prestigious. I recognise this contradicts an earlier point I made (that indies love working on things like Doctor Who), but hear me out: the work isn’t likely to win an Independent Games Festival award, or an Apple Design Award, or a GDC Award, or honestly anything that gets you significant respect from peers. You can bullshit TV people about how many downloads your vanilla app got, but you can’t bullshit a digital person – and they won’t care that your app is about Doctor Who.

And the truth is, apps made by indies (i.e. not iPlayer, BBC News, BBC Sport, etc.) are unlikely to reach that many people. BBC TV may get everywhere, but apps don’t. Not even the ones for big TV shows, because ‘calls to action’ are hard to get (e.g. “If you liked this episode, download the app at www.bbc.co.uk/whogame”)

Little Creative Control

The briefs I received from BBC commissioners were often highly detailed, specifying the type of game or website required, the story beats, the characters, the educational points that needed to be covered, and so on. That’s fine – it’s the BBC’s money, they can do what they like. But as a creative person and a creative company, it’s just not very interesting.

Once again, I’ll use Doctor Who as an example – you may think that it’d be great for the BBC to do a proper Doctor Who game that tied into the TV show. Unfortunately you are unlikely to get to do anything particularly interesting as you’ll always be second fiddle to the TV show’s needs. This is perfectly understandable given that the TV show gets millions of viewers a week, whereas your game or app can only hope to get a fraction of the audience. Why bother doing anything at all for smaller platforms, why waste Steven Moffat’s time (or any of the other production staff) when it’s better spent on the TV show?

The problem is that this is a classic innovator’s dilemma, where the BBC is failing to meet their audience’s unstated or future needs for interactivity. Apps may seem cheaper and lower quality and less popular but they do many things differently and better. One day we’ll want more interactivity from the BBC but the necessary skills and experience just won’t exist there (also, I’ve never bought the value for money idea behind focusing on TV production; if that were true we’d just made radio, or perhaps books).

Scheduling Problems

The TV industry is a strange beast; it has things like transmission (TX) dates where they decide – with alarmingly late notice – when a show is going to be broadcast. These decisions appear to be a dark art where channels size each other up and try to ‘win’ particular timeslots or nights. Accordingly, when we were making The Code, we didn’t know when the TV show was going to be broadcast until a few weeks beforehand; we’d finished most of the work but due to this uncertainty we had to keep the team together, idling on other work. Once again, this is expensive, it favours larger companies, and it’s not something that many indies realise when they start out.

Long Timescales

While the commissioning process isn’t that long, the process of making a TV show can still take years. Ideally you want the digital people to be involved right at the start, coming up with the concept for the interactive stuff – and you don’t want that changing drastically over time in case it causes problems with the TV people. But in digital, speed matters; what’s cool today may no longer be cool next year, let alone after two years. To be fair, this is not true of all digital ideas, but it does rob many a project of its freshness.

Personal Relationships

Success in pitching – and in production – can depend on personal relationships with commissioners. I know this because I’ve both benefitted and lost out from my relationships (or lack thereof). Commissioners can, and will, tell you details that aren’t in the brief. This is not because they’re corrupt – it’s because they aren’t necessarily amazing brief-writers and they don’t have enough time or resources to do a good job. If I bump into them at a conference and ask them a question about the brief, then they’ll probably answer, because they’re not misanthropic assholes (so yeah, good luck if you hate conferences or networking).

Commissioners also want to work with people whom they know they can get on with and whom they trust – after all, you’ll be working together for months or even years. Newbies don’t know this happens; it’s only people who’ve pitched and lost who do. Yet the necessity for these relationships puts even winners off as their commissioners will eventually move on.

Pitch Perfect

Unsurprisingly, a system that requires indies to pitch rewards those who are good at pitching. It is truly amazing how much a pitch matters. Now, in defence of the BBC, one could argue that a good pitch is a proxy for attention to detail, the ability to make good looking content on a deadline, and understanding the market. I think there is some truth in that. However, it’s easy to be dishonest in pitches, and it’s also easy to ‘cheat’ if you’re a big company, by wheeling out your big-hitter Don Draper-alikes for the pitch and then throwing a bunch of juniors onto the project afterwards.

Even the best indies will be lucky if they have a 50% success rate at pitching; a 30% or 40% rate is more likely. And good pitches can take weeks to put together, which means that while you’re producing one project, you’re probably pitching for two or three other things. Talk about distracting…

Tech Problems

Maybe things have changed in the last two or three years, but the BBC’s tech requirements were a total pain in the ass, adding considerable time and expense. There was always some weird new bizarre problem that cropped up every week; maybe you weren’t able to use a particular subdirectory, or a module was completely out of date. Every month you’d hear about some amazing new idea like BBC ID or Games Grid that usually didn’t work well and didn’t add a lot to the end user experience, but had to be implemented for political reasons – until you complained enough that that requirement was removed at the last minute. Endless meetings, endless emails and documentation, all for a service that was massively more expensive than Linode or AWS. Yes, I know the BBC has to have rock-solid security, etc, but I sure as hell am not interested in dealing with that if I can make more interesting stuff elsewhere.

You don’t learn a lot

There is a charming belief that your experience at the BBC will help you in related industries. Perhaps that’s true if you make TV, or if you want to continue pitching for tech projects at big organisations – but it sure as hell isn’t true for most industries. When you’re selling games or apps or services to end users, the entire production process is different; marketing is different; sales are different. It requires a totally different skill set. Like Ray in Ghostbusters says, “You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector… they expect results!”

Indies Keep Quiet

Most indies are quite rightly afraid of pissing the BBC off – who wants to burn those bridges? – so they keep quiet about all of these problems in public and they don’t share knowledge. Yes, the BBC solicits feedback, but bitter experience demonstrates that it changes little; and the cases where I have given critical feedback in public, I’ve been dismissed as a troublemaker by senior BBC staff. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.

Lack of Visibility for Indies

It’s hard for indies to learn about new pitching opportunities. Putting aside the execrable Bravo Solutions pitching interface, which I believe is being replaced/improved, the fact that you need to download a PDF from the Connected Studio website to learn about what the BBC is looking for is, well, insane. Have these people not heard of the World Wide Web, or Hypertext? Wouldn’t it be better to have that information on a webpage, perhaps? Or maybe create a newsletter and let indies just sign up to a weekly notification of new opportunities? You could probably do it for free with Mailchimp.

Doing roundtables and talks for indies (which are admirably held around the country) is not the same as having a really awesome website. In fact it punishes people who can’t spare time or money to attend briefing. Put all that shit online, do communication online.

At the end of the day

The best indies in the business aren’t applying for BBC digital products any more. Why would they want to work for less money, with less creative freedom, with less production flexibility, with an unpredictable bureaucracy that rewards skills and experience that aren’t applicable outside of the BBC?

ALTERNATIVES/IMPROVEMENTS

Q: What about BBC Connected Studio? Isn’t that totally awesome, really transparent, and solves every problem you’ve mentioned?

A: To be fair, I wouldn’t know because I haven’t participated in it. From what I can tell, it’s not about making original interactive content; instead it’s more about new ways of presenting existing content, something I acknowledge as being important but not the only thing the BBC should be doing. Other producers and developers who have been through the process have also told me that most pitches end up looking very similar, which doesn’t speak well for the amount of room for creativity.

Q: Adrian, you criticise the BBC a lot here, but you’re actually just a blowhard. What’s your solution?

A: I have a few suggestions, some of which may not be politically acceptable, but what the hell:

1. Spend more money on more things. This allows for greater risk taking. The current situation of spending lots of cash on a few projects is a false economy. Yes, I did say that the BBC didn’t pay a lot, but that’s judged against the work required. Digital indies can still do great things with £10k or £20k providing that the scope is controlled and they don’t have to go through hell and back during the pitching/production process. (Related: Do things faster.)

2. Don’t require all the tech be built on the BBC platform. Every time I do a project with BBC tech, our developers ask never to have to do it again. Yes, the BBC is a big organisation, security issues are important, etc., but consider this: The Open University is far more flexible about hosting and tech, and I don’t remember hearing any data-loss scandals from them yet.

3. Stop changing priorities and processes all the time. Every three months I feel like there’s some new fad or technology or genre that a commissioner or controller gets obsessed with after going to some media or tech conference. It makes it impossible to pitch really good, timeless stuff.

4. Be more open and more online for commissioning and production. Gather independent criticism from the best in the business; if you don’t know who they are, look at winners of Apple Design Awards, talk to veteran developers like Dave Addey (who, sadly, has left British shores and gone to the promised land – Cupertino).

Crazy Ideas That Just Might Work

1. Run a prize (you know, like the longitude prize). It’s actually kind of a terrible idea that puts a lot of cost on entrants and usually works for things that have payoff beyond actual prize money; and it also requires easily judged criteria, and smart judges. But it’d be pretty neat to watch.

2. Inject a market signal into the commissioning of original digital projects – for example, provide matched funding to crowdfunded ideas that meet certain BBC criteria. This process is absolutely gameable – see the Ouya debacle – but it’s not irredeemable. Certainly it’s better than getting ‘audiences’ to vote (for free) on what they want, but it does punish those who don’t have the money to ‘vote’ with. Maybe you could get people to vote with shares of their licence fee, which would be doable if the BBC end up requiring people to log in to use iPlayer.

3. Multiply the number of funding bodies. There are already other groups who award money for digital commissions: The Wellcome Trust, Lighthouse, Arts Council, etc. I have helped The Wellcome Trust with judging pitches; their process isn’t perfect, but it’s far faster and no less fair than the BBC’s process. In other words: if the BBC can’t fix their digital commissioning problem, maybe others can. Indeed, this solution works better for digital projects than for TV or radio content because – thus far – the BBC haven’t claimed original digital interactive content as a core part of their strategy. Have some funding bodies focus on popularity, others on art, others on games, etc.

4. Totally abolish digital commissioning at the BBC and do some kind of blanket incentive to R&D tax credits or games tax relief. This is the Nuclear Option #1: “Commissioning doesn’t work, so we just won’t commission any more.”

4a. Totally abolish digital commissioning, and just get TV indies to do it; The Malcolm Tucker app is a great example of a good digital product for a BBC show that nevertheless doesn’t actually involve the BBC.

5. Nuclear Option #2: “Just pick winners – don’t waste time getting indies to compete against each other.” Many big, successful companies I’ve worked with don’t bother with competitive commissioning because they just hire (who they believe to be) the best. This is unworkable for the BBC for political reasons (it conflicts with the supposed aim of championing small indies) but I mention it because it’s so successful for, you know, pretty much everyone else on Earth.

6. Nuclear Option #3: “Stop commissioning, do everything in-house.” Not a bad idea assuming you can get the right people (e.g. Government Digital Service) but again, politically a non-starter in these capitalist, market-driven, competitive times. But times change…

To end on a positive note, I can unequivocally state that the BBC is not the worst organisation I have encountered for digital commissioning. That title goes to the EU’s Horizon 2020 process, which rewards projects for having – no joke – 10+ partners over 10+ countries, taking place over 3-7 years. Now that’s a real nightmare.

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We’re Smart People and We Mean Well

June 30th, 2014 · No Comments

By now, many of you will know about Facebook’s experimental study in which they attempted (successfully, they claim) to make their users sadder or happier by manipulating their News Feeds – without their informed consent. To call the study controversial would be an understatement. Unethical, arrogant, and bone-headed would be a little more accurate.

Beyond the critical question of ethics and the dubious scientific worth of the study lies the fascinating reaction from Facebook and from the wider technology community (by which I mean prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and developers). It’s best to look at this reaction in comparison to other tech-related uproars that have engulfed the internet. Take the political issues like SOPA and net neutrality, for example. The whole tech community lent their voices and their wallets to internet-side of those movements, and they were all very happy to assume that their antagonists (’old media’ businesses, etc.) were flat-out evil and greedy reactionaries.

When the tables are turned and Facebook is under attack for running a psychological experiment on its users, we hear… nothing at all. Radio silence from VCs and leaders of big companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Dropbox, and any other brand-name tech company. Those who are brave enough to defend Facebook usually comes from a place of utter bafflement: “We technologists are smart people and we mean well – isn’t that enough for you? In fact, the problem isn’t with what Facebook has done, it’s with your foolish and imperfect understanding of it. Here, let me explain it to your irrational, inconsistent child-like mind so that you can see how we’re trying to help you, and after I’m done you will praise us!”

The most common defence of Facebook invokes A/B testing, routine experiments companies run all the time in order to optimise their websites and apps. There are two real responses to this assertion:

1. “A/B testing” is too vague a term for useful comparison in this case; one might as well say that “experiments” are either all good or bad. Testing two two versions of a website selling hats and seeing which one version in more clicks on the “Buy” button? No-one has a problem with this, because when you’re on a retail website, you have a reasonable expectation that the owners are optimising their commercial message (just as Starbucks might optimise the names of their drinks). But what if Google A/B tested its search ranking algorithms in order to make you feel more positive about the US government? I don’t think we’d be too happy about that. Which leads us to:

2. Facebook (and indeed, Google) is different to most websites. It is a place where users want to keep up to date with their friends and family; it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a lens through which a billion people view the world. People using Facebook are not expecting that they are being actively manipulated there; at least not in a way that directly acts against their interests (i.e. to make them sadder).

You might say that this attitude is naive and we should be suspicious of everyone and everything. And indeed we are, in certain places. When we watch TV or read a newspaper and see an advert, we know that the advert is trying to manipulate us and it’s something that most of us accept, even if we aren’t too happy about it. But that’s why it’s crucial that adverts are clearly identified – not just on TV, not just in newspapers, but also in tweets and Facebook posts. You need to know what is and what isn’t commercial speech.

I suspect that technologists would rather not think about the ethics of A/B testing, which is used so widely precisely because it’s a very powerful manipulative tool that can change users’ behaviour, earning you millions or even billions more. Perhaps they’re worried that Facebook’s study might unleash regulation on A/B testing in general, or any kind of user manipulation. And, frankly, they are right to be worried. I suspect that the blithe nature of Facebook’s experiment will make people very worried about the other kinds of studies going on in private.

Yet rather than directly engage with people who criticise Facebook’s practices, their defenders instead think that we are stupid. It almost feels like they have completely internalised the messianic mission of Silicon Valley, where every disruptive startup is out to “save the world”, a stance which conveniently requires any right-thinking and ethical entrepreneur to make shit-tons of money by manipulating their users as fast as they can (in order to reach scale, etc.).

Disagree with Facebook and you disagree with the mission. Disagree with the mission, and you are an evil person.

Of course, there is a bit more to this story than what I’ve already said. Many Silicon Valley people subscribe to a utilitarian calculus of ethics, which appeals to their rational, big data personalities. Thus they might also defend Facebook by saying that the company is ultimately trying to increase the sum total of happiness in the world, and they can only do it by conducting these experiments. Ignoring the fact that it would be absolutely impossible to definitively conclude that because we can’t predict the other effects of these experiments (such as the fact that knowing Facebook has such broad control over people’s views of the world might make them sadder), the bigger problem is that there are different standards of ethics out there.

According to my standard of a good life, I would rather not have benevolent masters strapping rose-tinted spectacles onto my face. In other words, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Others may disagree, but that’s the point. There is no single ethics out there. People can have rational disagreements and there is no use to saying that we’re foolish for not wanting to be helped by Facebook. Never has Upton Sinclair’s maxim been truer: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

What is to be done?

I am still on Facebook, although I feel very unhappy about it (hah). There is currently no alternative for me to keep up to date with many of my friends and family. You could say that this makes me a hypocrite, just like the Occupy Wall Street protestor who uses an iPhone – made by a capitalist company that seeks to minimise its tax burden by whatever means necessary.

I don’t think that’s the case. This is the world we live in. You cannot get a phone that isn’t made by a capitalist company. due to economies of scale. I cannot keep up to date with my friends and family in other ways, due to network effects. The goal is to strive towards something else, even if we can’t be perfect while we do it.

To that end, I pledge to donate $1000 to any non-profit or B-corp organisation seeking to replace Facebook’s core social network functions that is able to raise $10 million in total donations.

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The Pull: Digital Commissioning #4

May 19th, 2014 · 1 Comment

In my previous post, Part 3: World Enough and Time, I talked about the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies. In this post I’ll explore why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. Also, I’m aware this series is getting a little long, so I’m going to be a little briefer from now on.

Given the litany of problems I’ve talked about with digital commissioning at the BBC, why do independent companies continue to work with them? Clearly projects still get made, so it can’t be that bad, can it? There are indeed a few solid reasons why indies choose to pitch the BBC; however, not all of them are very good news, though.

Money

Getting commissioned by the BBC means that you’re guaranteed to get paid, whether or not it’s successful or popular. In comparison, trying to self-publish your own game or app comes with a hefty degree of risk. So, if you can’t compete in the commercial marketplace but you are good at pitching to the BBC, this is a great way to run a business.

Learning

Commissioned projects can be a good way to learn new ways of designing and developing projects while still getting paid. Never made apps about the weather before? If you can get commissioned to do something for the BBC, you can learn on the job. The downside here is that what you learn at the BBC may not be applicable in the commercial sector, but even so, it can still be a useful experience.

Exposure

The BBC is one of the biggest and most respected global brands, and shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock have tens of millions of viewers. Creating websites or apps related to those brands can expose your company to a wide audience; you can also get access to conferences and festivals which will help with networking and sales. Whether or not your project is any good or not hardly matters; conferences love getting speakers from the BBC since they can attract attendees. However, as people become increasingly aware that the real action online is happening with ‘original’ apps like Candy Crush, Minecraft, Angry Birds, and Snapchat (apps that can make hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of millions of players), the glow that’s associated with the BBC is starting to fade.

Excitement

It’s exciting to work on projects for the BBC! Where else do you get to work on something like Doctor Who or the Olympics? The BBC’s TV and radio shows still regularly attract audiences in the millions – something you’re unlikely to achieve for your own app or website. A commissioned project allows you to shortcut the uncertainty and grind of making your own thing and immediately get in front of a lot of people.

But, of course, it’s not all roses…

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.

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