Does it Scale?

When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I had two conflicting reactions: I was happy that the incredible rise in inequality and the pernicious influence of corporations and vested interests on democracy was finally getting the attention it deserved – but I found the sheer lack of organisation painful to see. In particular, the ‘total consensus’ decision-making process in some areas seemed like it was a definite roadblock to scaling things up. Only with scale, I thought, could the Occupy movement make a real impact.

We’ve treated ‘scale’ like an unalloyed good for so long that it seems peculiar to question it. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to scale businesses and services up to make more things for more people in more areas; perhaps the strongest is that things usually get cheaper and quicker to provide.

The problem is that scale has a cost, and that’s being unable to respond to the wants and needs of unique individuals. Theoretically, that’s not a problem in a free market, but of course, we don’t have a free market, and we certainly don’t have a free market when it comes to politics and media.

Just look at how the Occupy movement have been covered – or not, as the case may be. National news organisations naturally want to cover the biggest movements that they think will be of the most interest to the most people, and crucially, can be explained in the least time possible; no wonder they were so adamant on getting a single demand or list of issues from Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the movement – it’d make their lives easier.

And that process of simplification has a feedback effect on politics, focusing attention on just a small number of actors who appear to have ‘scale’ and an interesting story. Who cares about some little protest in some town when you can profile Michelle Bachmann, potential Republican presidential nominee (or indeed, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, etc.)? But there is one good reason behind focusing on them – it’s the ultimate instance of scale, one person representing over 300 million people.

I find that disturbing. I’ve made no secret of my belief that bad gatekeepers (like commissioners and editors) can waste money, favour their friends, and harm creativity. Some think that the solution to this is to have better gatekeepers. I think the solution is to have fewer gatekeepers – as few as we can manage with.

The system of politics in the US and UK has a similar problem, where you have a single person wielding a massive amount of power. When we see a bad leader in power, we think the solution is to elect a better leader. For some reason, we don’t think of having fewer leaders.

So, on second thoughts, I can see understand the strengths of the Occupy movement. By being a leaderless organisation, small groups that are loosely connected, it neatly eliminates the problem of abusive or ineffective leaders and devolves power to a much more local level – a level that can be more reflective and responsive to the people directly involved.

OccupyX is not perfect by any means but it demonstrates an alternative to the lure of scale. Just by itself, that’s a remarkable achievement.

Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).

Economist

The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Continue reading “Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps”