s08e16: What's the EGOT for Technology and Arts?

also: Trying To Figure Out What To Do About Digital, Still

0.0 Context setting

It’s Wednesday, 1 July 2020 and I’m listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Fever just finished and the Chemical Brothers’ Hey Boy Hey Girl just started, which is as good a description as ever of my iTunes library (at my first startup, it was called a piranha tank).

It feels like everything is falling to pieces outside, but remember that fundamentally, most people are actually nice to each other and when people aren’t nice to each other, it’s generally out of fear and hurt.

There’s someone near you today who could probably do with a hug, if you can do it safely. It’ll probably be good for both of you.

1.0 Some Things That Caught My Attention

1.1 Your regular reminder continues

See my previous regular reminder.

This is your regular reminder that facial and body recognition technology can be racist. Streetsblog reported on a study showing AVs [Autonomous vehicles] May Not Detect Darker-Skinned Pedestrians As Often As Lighter Ones, here’s the underlying paper, Predictive Inequity in Object Detection by Benjamin Wilson, Judy Hoffman and Jamie Morgenstern from Georgia Tech [vanity arXiv version].

(arXiv Vanity is a Very Nice Website that “renders academic papers from arXiv as responsive web pages so you don’t have to squint at a PDF).

I had a throwaway comment that I have to admit I couched in a gee-aw-shucks-I’m-just-doing-a-bit: “at this point, is arXiv just blogger-but-for-scientists?” [tweet].

See, the bit is funny because arXiv is an open scientific site for pre-prints of papers, which means they haven’t been peer-reviewed yet and published in, I guess, a “proper” journal. Many of the papers on arXiv, at least from what I’ve observed recently, aren’t from academics, and in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning can commonly come from researchers working at private companies like Facebook, or startups. (Interestingly, Apple had to deal with this issue in hiring machine learning talent by coming up with its own journal, because it can be a significant detriment to your career if you just stop publishing, which used to happen at the notoriously secretive company).

1.2 Set a billion dollars on fire, just for kicks

I had a thought the other week about Quibi, a… video platform? founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO’d by Meg Whitman.

Katzenberg is the Hollywood guy who you might remember as CEO of Disney from 1984 to 1994, then leaving to be the K in Dreamworks SKG.

Meg Whitman is known in the tech industry as former CEO of eBay and as I’m recapping the pertinent points of her wikipedia page, I have to admit I completely scrubbed from my memory that eBay bought Skype in 2005 for nearly 28 times the 2016 budget of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, ie ~$4.1 billion. Whitman then went on to become CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and I honestly can’t remember if that means she was in charge of printers-and-ink or computers', which you can take as an indictment of fucked-up corporate culture and naming.

Anyway, their background is important because in Quibi, you have a company positioned at, as they say, the intersection of liberal arts and technology. Quibi’s pitch is that it has a platform exclusively built for short-form video (hence quick bites), but that’s not enough.

The technological innovation that Quibi brings to your mobile device is that its videos seamlessly switch between portrait and landscape orientations as you turn your phone, which is something that we have always wanted. I mean, I totally remember all the times I’ve been watching landscape video and wondered: what is just above the frame that I can’t see right now? To be fair, being able to rotate video is much more compelling when the video is shot in portrait, but again, I can’t say it’s been a burning need for me.

I like to think that one of my superpowers is sideways analogies and comparisons that illuminate something about the subject in a helpful or insightful way, I guess, a bit like the arXiv example above. But I thought a bit more about this Quibi one coming up.

Quibi has clearly been stuck in the back of my head since I tried it that one time and then let my trial subscription lapse, because the other day, I was wondering what an equivalent to Quibi might be for video games:

To be clear, the Quibi analogy is the pumping of an absurd amount of money (more than a billion dollars) into a bet on the combination of a new technology and “content”, in this case, video, involving someone eminently experienced in that field of content. The expected payoff is huge, justifying the large amount of money invested at such an early stage, and one of the other attributes of this kind of pattern is using that money not only to develop a new technology, but to commission a lot of expensive material (apparently, up to a billion dollars worth) from “content producers”. The investors in Quibi’s case are a bunch of “traditional” media companies, film and television studios, the kind that you might simplistically put in the old media bucket, divisions frantically Trying To Figure Out What To Do About Digital, Still.

(Yesterday — was it yesterday? who knows anymore — Lululemon bought Mirror, one of those expensive at-home connected device exercise things that has a subscription model, and I briefly quipped that if you love non internet-native corporations buying “native” online companies so much, then name three that continue to be profitable and have not been destroyed, accidentally or through neglect or otherwise.)

Last year, Quibi had names like Anna Kendrick, Guillermo del Toro, Don Cheadle and Liams Hemsworth attached to it, along with Tyra Banks, Chrissy Teigen, Jennifer Lopez, Lena Waithe and Steph Curry [Variety]. The strategy of throwing money at creative people in exchange for content on your platform is not a new one.

The similarity Quibi has to 3DO in my head is best explained in this tweet by Christina Warren:

In the end, the consensus of the thread I started was that Nokia’s N-Gage was probably the closest to Quibi, summed up quite well by Michael French, who was previously editor of Develop, the games industry developer trade magazine in the UK, as well as MCV:

At least, I like Christina’s take, because she’s with me on 3DO being a proto-Quibi because in my head 3DO was right there in the middle of the Hollywood, Digital and Games space, with jealous parties from each camp wanting the recognition, revenue, influence and trendiness that the other had. And, like Christina says, a solid Trip Hawkins/Jeffrey Katzenberg parallel.

But, all of this is just setup to the actual interesting part!

To me, there are these repeated forays into tech and entertainment trying to get into bed with each other and, so far, most of them failing, in a gamut that ranges from spectacularly (the really big, high profile bets, like Quibi and 3DO etc) and very, very quietly (um, I don’t know. But I’m sure there are some).

Again, Christina describes it like this: you do need a true merger of tech and entertainment. I mean, you don’t really, but if you want to be successful and you want to realize the potential that you see there, then yes, you need an effective, true merge. Christina says this is what makes Netflix successful. That said, I have Friends In The Industry who are skeptical about Netflix’s chops in the entertainment side of things - many of the successful shows on their platform are re-treads of existing, popular material. Netflix does, certainly know how to reduce risk, but they feel a bit like exploring a landscape that’s only as good as the data they have and not, irritatingly, accounting for that ineffable human instinct or taste. They certainly haven’t found a way to magically replicate that success every single time.

If you’ve read this newsletter before, then you may be unsurprised to see me jump out and tout Pixar as the One True Best Successful Example of a merger of technology and entertainment, and it frustrates me that we don’t have as many other examples as I feel we should do.

In Pixar, we’ve got an organization that is industry defining in both the arts and technology fields. In technology, you’ve got industry defining achievements, award-winning advancements in algorithms, software and operations, I mean, Ed Catmull got a goddamn Turing Award for fundamental contributions to computer graphics last year, and now I want to come up with the tech/arts equivalent of the EGOT, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards. And then on top of that, you’ve got both the critical and popular acclaim that Pixar’s delivered: a stupendous number of awards of industry recognition to go along with box office success.

This isn’t to say that Pixar is perfect - they aren’t - but the partnership of Catmull and Lasseter set out to achieve something very specific: computer animated movies, that required the balance between art and technology driving each other on in the service of stellar storytelling. Pixar could not have done what they did or intended to without intimate, critical understanding and execution of technology that didn’t even exist (and still doesn’t).

I get frustrated about this, and have written about this before, because I believe that interactive media in general has yet to have an undeniable breakout moment to the same degree of critical success. I mean, yes, there are many games out there that win awards and have affected popular culture, and I love and have played many of them.

But I broadly agree with my brother that “all AAA game writing [is] shit compared to the most mediocre films and TV” and yes, I know he’s being a bit hyperbolic (there is some really shit film and TV out there).

Leigh Alexander (a brilliant game writer) has pretty much the defining insightful comment on that thread, pointing out that in general, AAA games “don’t want great storytelling” because

But I digress.

One of my life’s ambitions is, as I somewhat carelessly say, to “do a Pixar but for interactive media” and man, is it hard. I used to think that one of the reasons it was hard is that you really need to get that creative/enabling technology partnership right, and for a long time one of the problems was that the “good” writers, or the writers that the younger me would want to work with and weren’t dead and didn’t break out in panic attacks about having to write (sorry, Douglas Adams), just didn’t exist.

(The usual story I tell here is that when I was making multiplatform/360 extensions to novels and TV properties in the UK, we’d get excited about the storytelling and worldbuilding potential, but most of the time, the authors and writers/directors weren’t interested. Because, and fair play to them: they didn’t want to do that. They had what they wanted to do, which was invariably, what they were actually doing: write a novel or produce a TV show).

My hope now is that there’s a generation of writers who have grown up with interactive media and love it and see the potential and, frankly, are actually good writers so that the pool of people to work with is so much bigger. But the games industry is a bit weird what with its fascination with that simplest of verbs, HURT, or SHOOT, or PROJECT FORCE, rather than, well, so many of the other. Yes, there are brilliant people emerging, like Meg Jayanth (who interned with us at Six to Start!), like Leigh Alexander (of whom I am very jealous in terms of writing talent), like Robin Sloan, like Naomi Alderman, but, well, let me just insert this from Naomi:

I mean, come on. Naomi wrote Disobedience (adapted into a film), her second novel was The Power (which you may have heard of, I mean, Barack Obama liked it, and is being adapted into a series for Amazon). Naomi’s also the writer behind Six to Start’s Zombie’s, Run! and by all accounts wants to write games, but… crickets?

So I guess I am optimistic and angry, in that people can get a billion dollar’s worth of funding for something like Quibi, but really, all I’d like is a hundred million dollars over a few years and the time and space to build a team.

I do think a bunch of attempts were too early. I’ve written about this before. But I do think we’re ready, and I do think there are the people out there with amazing stories to be told who’re yearning to do something different, new and not just Hollywood-but-you-can-rotate-your-phone, and it’s going to be hard and require making new things and gosh at forty years old now have I learned the virtue of patience and not going for the biggest thing first and the biggest splash.

I suppose I should get back to that pitch doc and figure out how Patreon and Kickstarter works, right?

2.0 Some even smaller bits that caught my attention lately

Look, this’ll blow your mind. Via Deb Chachra, do you remember that time that

the North and South of the United States “were on different track gauges until one rail of every Southern track was bumped over by a few inches and re-secured in a forty-eight hour period. [Twitter]

That conversation/revelation itself came from one that did the rounds earlier that day, that not only does the U.S. persist in using imperial measurements, but the length of a foot isn’t even consistent across U.S. states.

Ars Technica reported on an unpublished paper that identified “more than 1,000 sequences that incorrectly trigger smart speakers”, like Alexa waking up when it hears words like “unacceptable” and “election”. There’s a brief write-up from the team on Github. This, of course, is fine.

It is left as an exercise to the reader to imagine scenarios in which this could lead to someone’s death. (Also, death is a bad thing that can happen, but clearly not the only bad thing that can happen.)

My friend Paul Bennun is the Chief Content Officer at KCRW in Los Angeles and is looking for pitches relating to Afrofuturism. I bet some of you reading might either a) be that person, or b) know a person. Pass it on.

OK, I think that’s it for today.

Thanks, as ever, to the people who’ve written in with notes, and let’s see if I write again tomorrow.