Postage Without Printing

Royal Mail recently announced it will start collecting parcels from people’s doorsteps for a small fee. While I understand this is pretty normal in the US, it’s a novelty in the UK and makes sending parcels just that little bit easier – all you need to do is buy your postage online and print out a label.

The problem is, not everyone has a printer. I do have a laser printer, which even before COVID was only used for those few tickets and boarding passes that couldn’t be saved to my phone, along with the occasional bits of postage: maybe only print ten or twenty pages a year. So anything that can drive that twenty pages down to zero and therefore eliminate the requirement for a printer entirely – thus saving money, hassle, and the environment – would be a total win.

Tickets and passes can become digital because the thing that needs the pass (you) can display it in a different way than paper (your phone). But postage is different, since the thing (your parcel) does not have an alternate display (its label). That label contains the destination of the parcel in human-readable plaintext, along with other stuff including a QR code verifying the parcel’s selected service (e.g. first class, second class, etc.), weight, dimensions, sender, account details, and so on.

The reason the label needs to be printed is because you can’t rely on humans to reproduce a machine-readable QR code with a pen. So that’s that – we’ll always need printers for postage.

Or do we? What if Royal Mail gave senders a unique string of characters that represented all the information currently in the QR code: something like XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX? Write that string on the parcel, and voila: no printing required.

Write the Address

Technically you could have only the unique string on the parcel since it has all information required, but I think you’d still want the destination on the parcel as well as a failsafe, and crucially, to make the posties’ lives easier.

Pay After Posting

Under this scheme, the sender would need to assess the postage required for their letter or parcel by weighing and measuring it. That’s not hard but it’s yet another step, and perhaps an unnecessary one since I assume Royal Mail must check whether parcels have the appropriate level of postage required. If they’re already doing that, and if I trust them to do it well, why not just let them charge me whatever’s required so I don’t have to measure and weigh myself?

So I’d set up an account with Royal Mail with my payment information, tell them I was sending something (maybe I’d take a photo), they’d give me my unique string (which now also includes my account info) and at some point during the delivery process they’d charge me for the correct amount.

OCR

I admit I have no idea how expensive or annoying it is for Royal Mail to read handwritten addresses versus scanning a QR code. But OCR is pretty good these days and we could help it along by selling cheap rolls of labels with specified areas for the unique string and the destination address, plus some orientation markers.

Something like this

This is more of an idle thought than a deeply-researched proposal: I’m not a postage expert so I’m sure there are obvious flaws. Still, I’ve spent a lot of money and time on posting things – my company has sent tens of thousands of parcels worldwide and I used to do it myself back when I sold Mars maps as a teenager (a story for another time). So I know the pain points on our side, at least!

On Acedia, and my new book A New History of the Future in 100 Objects

My new book, A New History of the Future in 100 Objects, is out today, and you can find it at your favourite local bookstore (via Bookshop.org) or Amazon US and Amazon UK.

If you’re thinking, “haven’t I read heard of this already?” it’s because this is a new edition of A History of the Future in 100 Objects, published by MIT Press. There are twenty brand new or completely rewritten objects on everything from basic maximum income and a fleet of geo-engineering to funerary monuments for billionaires. I also used the opportunity to weave more intricate links between the objects, while bringing them bang up to date for 2020. 

Here are reviews from the first edition of the book:

…Adrian Hon conjures a detailed and arresting vision of a late 21st century world where technology has helped us advance so far it’s hard to say what it means any more to be human.

Start the Week, BBC Radio 4

Although he exhibits plenty of skepticism, Hon is optimistic at heart. His imagined future is one of technological innovation and social betterment. With so much speculative fiction predicting doom and gloom over the next century, it’s refreshing to see such hopefulness. This is the Jetsons’ future, one that’s bright and beautiful and very, very shiny.

Grantland

And you can read the first six chapters of the original edition online!


It’s a weird time to be launching any book, let alone one about the future. It was hard enough to remain hopeful and write an optimistic vision of the next sixty years, and it’s still harder to justify sharing that vision when a pandemic rages across the planet and people who I know and love have lived with literal flames on the horizon.

And then I learned a word that spoke to this sense of paralysis, but also a way beyond it: acedia. It’s so apt I’m going to break the rules of book promotion and share part of Bruce Schneier’s post

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

…Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

Our horizons have been obscured by the smoke of so many fires that it feels impossible to plan for the future. Worse than impossible: pointless. 

But those horizons remain, and we can see them again by working together and caring for each other, using new tools and building new communities of care. And though my book imagines a hopeful future, this new edition is about hope in the face of desperate challenge. 

It’s about a country that remembers what democracy means, even as they’re governed by all-knowing, AI-enhanced ‘epistocrats’. 

It’s about people who choose to give up what they have to empty out half the world, so humanity has that much better chance of thriving. 

It’s about women poking fun and fighting back at politicians who try to control what they eat.

And it’s about the hundred exciting, scary, funny, tragic things that we will get to see.

Acedia, a lack of care that’s manifest in the world all around us, is something we can get through by caring for each other – and by imagining the future we can earn through that care. I hope my book can help you imagine that future.

If You Can’t Win, Cheat

Coercive gamification turns all of us into cheaters. Should we feel bad about cheating our workplaces and health insurers?

I confess: I cheat at my Apple Watch.

In the Before Times, I used to travel from my home in Edinburgh to Six to Start’s office in London every fortnight. The train took four and a half hours, but I managed to fill it most ways with a mixture of work, reading, and Game of Thrones. The main irritation came from my watch, which nagged me ten minutes before the hour if I’ve been sitting too much.

By default, the Apple Watch displays an “Activity Rings” icon showing how much you’ve moved, exercised, and stood up. You can change your “Move” target, but the Watch insists you do 30 minutes of exercise and stand for at least a minute during 12 hours each day. Miss your goals (which are really Apple’s goals) and you’ll receive passive-aggressive reminders to do better. Hit them, and your Watch will reward you with a shiny achievement badge – and there’s plenty more gamification woven throughout the Watch, like competitions against friends and time-limited challenges.

I know it’s meaningless, but I see those rings every time I lift my wrist and it’s dagger to heart to see them incomplete. Most of the time it’s easy to fill them, but when I’m on a four hour train, there are fewer opportunities to stand. So here’s what I do: at one minute before the hour, I stand up for two minutes so I get “standing” credit for both hours. I can then sit easy for another 118 minutes before rousing myself once more.

Is this cheating? Yes – and no. Who am I really cheating – and when did I even choose to play this game?


Wherever there’s a game, there’s cheating. When I moved to London in the mid-2000s, I discovered I could get a fancy gym membership on the cheap via Prudential Health Insurance (now known as Vitality). Because I was a young and I didn’t smoke, my premium was low, but more importantly, if I earned enough Vitality points I got a discount on the gym membership such that I was practically paying nothing for both the health insurance and the gym.

You could earn Vitality points with self-reported information (“how much do you drink?”) but reaching the higher levels required more work, like buying vegetable from the supermarket, walking more steps during the day, or visiting the gym. I know for a fact that at my gym, several members would regularly tap in, sit in the cafe for fifteen minutes, and then leave – long enough to register as a proper visit. It sounds ridiculous but you could save hundreds of pounds a year by gaming the system. It might have done it once or twice myself. What can I say? It was fun.

These days, health insurers track your movement via your phone, which has led to a thriving trade in “swinging cradles” that make my Apple Watch hack look like child’s play:

It’s funny, but it’s also incredibly sad. Something has gone desperately wrong if insurers and employers are driving people to cheat at being “healthy”. If someone’s bone-tired after clocking off from their low-paid job, no amount of cheery gamification will convince them to walk 10,000 steps rather than drop their phone into a swinging cradle while they collapse on the sofa.

That people would cheat at games shouldn’t surprise us. Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about how his mother and mother-in-law were so obsessed with Draw Something that they’d cheat in order to continue their chain of correct guesses by writing the word “rose” instead of drawing a rose.

To be clear: the point of Draw Something is for one player to draw something and for the other player to correctly guess what it is. That’s how they started out playing, but they became fixated on seeing a particular score going up that when my friend exclaimed, “That’s cheating!” his mum strenuously disagreed. Harmless enough, but it shows our natural human aptitude for cheating.

I didn’t turn on the Activity Rings and its attendant gamification features when I set up my Apple Watch – they’re baked in, just as gamification is baked in to so many other tools and services we use today, willingly or not. What happens when you turn the world into a game, when you coerce people into playing? What happens when you raise the stakes so high people’s livelihoods depend on winning?

You train people to cheat.

Continue reading “If You Can’t Win, Cheat”

In the Shadow of Apple Fitness+

Never have I been gladder that my company’s fitness app is zombie-themed. Somehow I don’t see Tim Cook signing off on an Apple-branded fitness service where you’re chased by the undead – it doesn’t quite fit with their relentlessly-positive vibe and so, for now, we’re immune from being sherlocked.

But Apple’s announcement of their new Fitness+ subscription service has undercut a whole swathe of apps like Peloton, Sweat with Kayla, Centr, Nike Training Club, Fiit, Yoga Studio, Asana Rebel, Zova, Fitness Coach, Planet Fitness – I could go on. They’re literally undercutting the price, since the marginal cost of getting Fitness+ for many Apple users is likely to be lower than that of a standalone fitness app, but Fitness+ also cuts out the legs of competitors that cannot reasonably be expected to match it on promotion, features, and bundling:

Promotion

Fitness+ will be advertised to all iOS users, just as Apple Arcade, Apple News, Apple Music, and Apple TV+ are. Even if you never search for a fitness app, you’re likely to see Fitness+, if only as part of the Apple One bundle. And this promotion is not some ethereal advantage – competitors would need to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to match its reach and effectiveness.

Features

I’ve never seen any app stream real-time workout data and Activity Rings onto secondary screen. I’m not saying it can’t be done without the use of private Apple-only APIs, but if it is possible, it’s extremely challenging for even the best developers. Real-time communication between the Watch and the phone, let alone Apple TV or iPad, is notoriously buggy and it behaves in unpredictable, undocumented ways – and I speak from bitter experience. The Fitness+ team, however, will have had a direct line to Apple’s iOS and Watch teams, something that third parties have only rarely.

Bundling

Peloton could team up with Spotify, the New York Times, Microsoft Xbox, Disney, and Dropbox, and offer a comparable bundle to Apple One. I think we know that’s not going to happen.


Apple’s behemoth status is old news at this point. We all know that a $2 trillion company can dismiss mere billion dollar unicorns without a backwards glance. And we know that its unquestionable supremacy in hardware – I’ve already ordered the Series 6 Watch for its blood oxygen sensors – is thanks to its tight integration with its software platforms. This, in turn, leads to a level of ecosystem lock-in that Microsoft in the 90s could have only dreamed of: I like the Apple Watch, but it’s not as if any other smartwatch is capable of integrating with iOS in the same way.

But I didn’t expect Apple to make a fitness service. Nor for it to be so much more technically advanced than competitors.

Tonight, those competitors will be messaging each other in panic. Tomorrow morning, they’ll be desperately researching whether they can replicate Fitness+’s features int heir own apps. Maybe this is bloody glory of competition, but to me, it’s appalling.

Some of those competitors will die. Most will survive, after taking a hit. And those survivors, once they dust themselves off, will still have to pay Apple 15-30% of their total subscription revenue for the privilege of working their land.


Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

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Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

Digital Sight Management, and the Mystery of the Missing Amazon Receipts

Chances are you’ve bought something from Amazon in the last few months (yes, we are all hypocrites, also there’s a pandemic on). Try searching your email for one of those orders. For me, that’d be “cat flap” or “chilli oil” or “airfloss”.

No luck? You aren’t alone: Amazon stopped including item details in order confirmation and shipping notification emails a few months ago. They just show the price and order date now. For all its faults, Amazon has pretty good customer service, which makes this user-hostile change baffling to understand. Sure, you can still see your orders on Amazon’s website and download a CSV, but it’s far more cumbersome than searching your email; and if you’re a power-user, you can say goodbye to automatically generating to-do tasks from Amazon emails.

From my own Amazon orders

What reason would be big enough for Amazon to annoy so many of their users? It’s simple: data.

Popular free email clients like Edison Mail and Cleanfox “scrape” their users’ emails and sell anonymised or pseudonymised data on to third parties. With enough users, they can detect trends and measure brand loyalty – valuable information for competitors. By stripping item details from its emails, Amazon tells us just how much this was hurting them.

Then again, Amazon knows the value of data. It’s been accused of competing with its own Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers by watching their usage:

Critics argue that the company’s role as a platform gives it an unfair advantage. Because AWS has thousands of customers, the company has a godlike perspective of broad industry trends, including insight into which third-party tools are most popular. The suspicion, one executive of an open source cloud tool company told me off the record, is that AWS is watching “run rates” — the amount of money spent on a particular tool per year. When they see a service provider like Elastic start to generate serious revenue, Amazon incorporates the functionality of that tool into its own proprietary service. In the words of Warren, that makes AWS both a team owner and an umpire.

And it’s also used the private data of third-party vendors to launch competing products:

Amazon employees accessed documents and data about a bestselling car-trunk organizer sold by a third-party vendor. The information included total sales, how much the vendor paid Amazon for marketing and shipping, and how much Amazon made on each sale. Amazon’s private-label arm later introduced its own car-trunk organizers.

For Amazon, turnabout isn’t fair play, but unlike companies who have little choice but to use AWS or sell on Amazon.com, it can solve its problem by tweaking the emails it sends to customers. For now.


A couple of years ago, I had a long call with Samsung’s Global Strategy Group about using gamification to sell heads-up displays and augmented reality (AR) glasses. It’s an open secret that every major tech company thinks AR glasses are the Next Big Thing after smartphones, so their interest wasn’t a surprise. I told them most gamification was awful and ineffective, but it was fascinating to see Samsung casting about for ideas, as if unsure what people would use AR glasses for.

Apple patent 10741181 “User interface for correcting recognition errors”, includes an AR glasses interface

Some applications for AR are obvious in the same way that web browsing and music were obvious for smartphones. We can all agree it’d be helpful to see directions hovering over streets rather than peering down at a phone; to visualise how to repair a broken coffee machine without flipping through a manual; and if you’re like me, to see people’s names floating beside their heads at parties. But smartphones changed the world far more dramatically in ways that most people didn’t predict, like social networks, taxis, photography, games, retail, and fitness.

It’s a fool’s errand to imagine every use of AR before we have the hardware in our hands, yet there’s one use of AR glasses that few are talking about but will be world-changing: scraping data from everything we see.

Take the example of Amazon’s emails. What if customers start wearing AR glasses that use computer vision to recognise everything they see – not just acquaintances’ faces but the checkout screens on their phones and laptops? What if it’s possible for other companies to scrape customers’ every interaction with Amazon, from their search terms to their eye gaze as they scan through the options, to the reviews they read and the other stores they’re visiting?

What’s true for Amazon is true for every other tech giant that jealously guards the data it “owns”. In just a few year’s time, augmented reality open a new war between those who hold data and those who want it, and it’ll be the war to end all wars. AR glasses will enable the collection and processing of information about our lives and the entire world in a way that’s so powerful, tech giants will feel they have no choice but to lock AR hardware down tight – so tight that in a decade’s time, their considerable control over our lives today will seem laughably laissez-faire.

Because what will it mean when everything can be scraped?

Continue reading “Digital Sight Management, and the Mystery of the Missing Amazon Receipts”

What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon

The far-right QAnon conspiracy theory is so sprawling, it’s hard to know where people join. Last week, it was 5G cell towers, this week it’s Wayfair; who knows what next week will bring? But QAnon’s followers always seem to begin their journey with the same refrain: “I’ve done my research.”

I’d heard that line before. In early 2001, the marketing for Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, A.I., had just begun. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another four years, so you had to be eagle-eyed to spot the unusual credit next to Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, and Frances O’Connor: Jeanine Salla, the movie’s “Sentient Machine Therapist”.

Close-up of the A.I. movie poster

Soon after, Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) posted a tip from a reader:

Type her name in the Google.com search engine, and see what sites pop up…pretty cool stuff! Keep up the good work, Harry!! –ClaviusBase

(Yes, in 2001 Google was so new you had to spell out its web address.)

The Google results began with Jeanine Salla’s homepage but led to a whole network of fictional sites. Some were futuristic versions of police websites or lifestyle magazines; others were inscrutable online stores and hacked blogs. A couple were in German and Japanese. In all, over twenty sites and phone numbers were listed.

By the end of the day, the websites racked up 25 million hits, all from a single AICN article suggesting readers ‘do their research’. It later emerged they were part of the first-ever alternate reality game (ARG), The Beast, developed by Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s movie.

The way I’ve described it here, The Beast sounds like enormous fun. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a doorway into 2142 filled with websites and phone numbers and puzzles, with runaway robots who need your help and even live events around the world? But consider how much work it required to understand the story and it begins to sound less like “watching TV” fun and more like “painstaking research” fun. Along with tracking dozens of websites that updated in real time, you had to solve lute tablature puzzles, decode base 64 messages, reconstruct 3D models of island chains that spelt out messages, and gather clues from newspaper and TV adverts across the US.

This purposeful yet bewildering complexity is the complete opposite of what many associate with conventional popular entertainment, where every bump in your road to enjoyment has been smoothed away in the pursuit of instant engagement and maximal profit. But there’s always been another kind of entertainment that appeals to different people at different times, one that rewards active discovery, the drawing of connections between clues, the delicious sensation of a hunch that pays off after hours or days of work. Puzzle books, murder mysteries, adventure games, escape rooms, even scientific research – they all aim for the same spot.

What was new in The Beast and the ARGs that followed it was less the specific puzzles and stories they incorporated, but the sheer scale of the worlds they realised – so vast and fast-moving that no individual could hope to comprehend them. Instead, players were forced to co-operate, sharing discoveries and solutions, exchanging ideas, and creating resources for others to follow. I’d know: I wrote a novel-length walkthrough of The Beast when I was meant to be studying for my degree at Cambridge.

QAnon is not an ARG. It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are lots of ways of understanding conspiracy theories without ARGs. But QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by coincidence. In both cases, “do your research” leads curious onlookers to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information.

In other words, maybe QAnon is… fun?

ARGs never made it big. They came too early and It’s hard to charge for a game that you stumble into through a Google search. But maybe their purposely-fragmented, internet-native, community-based form of storytelling and puzzle-solving was just biding its time…

Continue reading “What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon”