Category Archives: The internet

Pixar, technology, and the arts

artsscienceImage: Khairul Sabirin / Adrian Grosu at Picfair.com

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. Predictably, I’ve emerged from it with a renewed awe of both Jobs and Apple. But perhaps the parts I most enjoyed were the chapters on Pixar.

The intersection of science and the arts was a constant touchstone in Jobs’s life, perhaps never more so than during his years guiding Pixar from a niche, outlying division of Lucasfilm to an entertainment goliath that eventually sold to Disney for $7.2 billion.

After he invested $10 million of his own money to buy a controlling share of the company in 1986, Isaacson explains why Jobs and Pixar were such a philosophically perfect match:

Jobs had always appreciated the virtue of integrating hardware and software, which is what Pixar did with its Image Computer and rendering software. It also produced creative content, such as animated films and graphics. All three elements benefitted from Jobs’s combination of artistic creativity and technological geekiness. “Silicon Valley folks don’t really respect Hollywood creative types, and the Hollywood folks think that tech folks are the people you hire and never have to meet,” Jobs later said. “Pixar was the one place where both cultures were respected.”

The quote really struck me. Jobs and Pixar understood the crucial, almost imperative, symbiosis of technology and the arts … in 1986. 27 years later, there are plenty of artistic industries that, it’s easy to argue, still don’t totally get it.

While technology may have radically transformed visible face of the arts, it rarely appears at its creative geneses. Across the board – in the media, in publishing, in the art world, in fashion, in design – ‘the techies’ are still too frequently found in the the downstairs world of ‘production’, as ‘the artists’, upstairs, create. This, as Jobs would have noted, is shit.

Starting up: An intro

logoforblog

Almost exactly a year ago, I decided to leave the Guardian. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d been travel writing for them (and others) since my final year of university and had moved in house as a writer and digital producer in 2009. A good stint, but time to go.

I spent a few weeks shouting at the moon, did a few freelance gigs, and then signed up to a General Assembly front end development course. I knew I wanted to work with developers, but didn’t know that I would actually become one. I loved it. I found myself waking up at three in the morning to move a <div> four pixels to the right. The thing that surprised me the most: I found writing code just as – if not more – creative than writing words.

I completed that course and released my final project – The Reddit Edit – into the wild. It did nicely, and was featured by The Atlantic, Mashable, TheNextWeb, and others. I used it to flog my next project, Interactive Stories – essentially pitching myself as a freelance interactive news designer. This has done well too, and has been commissioned by The Guardian and Rough Guides. Together with other writing gigs and a bit of consultancy, it paid the bills. I even got a few job offers from some notable meedja houses, but I knew it wasn’t right for me to go back.

Then I did a Ruby on Rails course – the back end to my front end (non-devs: this is the database building stuff, it’s fucking hard). I’d been sitting on a startup idea for a few years, and this meant I could actually start building it. After the Ruby course, I was incredibly proud to say I was a bad-to-OK developer, but that wasn’t enough. I did a deal with my horrifically-talented friend Rik Lomas who had taught the GA course: he would tutor me in Ruby and fix my bugs once a week in return for copy-writing help and marketing advice for his code-learning startup Steer (they’re great, give them all your money).

I am now dangerously close to having a startup. So I thought it would be cathartic and mildly interesting for others to start writing about the process. The rules: I will spend no longer than 30 mins writing these posts, I will not guarantee their frequency, and I will not apologise for humblebrags or flagrant self-promotion.

What is the startup?

It’s a search engine for brass instruments called Boogle. Not really. I’m not going to tell you yet. But, a few clues: it’s based around images, and money. It’s borrowing a model previously used to wake up a very old reeling industry, which I aim to apply to another very old reeling industry. It isn’t porn.

Does it exist?

Almost. I’ve built most of it – the back end in Ruby, the front end in HTML, CSS & Javascript. I’ve drafted the licenses and built marketing databases. The only cash I’ve spent is on a logo (that’s it, above, tiled, for no particular reason) and a little branding. I’d say I’m 90% there.

What am I doing now?

I’m steadily approaching my technical ceiling. Well, that’s maybe a bit unfair. I’ve found that pretty much every technical hurdle I’ve been faced with is surmountable, with a little help from Rik and StackOverflow. However, I’ve realised that I’m just not technically good enough to maintain the code, while managing the business, flogging the crap out of it, chasing potential clients and the like, and doing all the other stuff you need to as a startup founder. I know that an hour of my time is better spent as a marketeer than fixing a filthy CDN API-parsing RegEx bug that would take a better developer five minutes to solve.

So, I’m looking for a lead Ruby developer / CTO / Technical Co-Founder type person. I know that I can’t do this with equity, as 20% of nothing is nothing. So I’m simultaneously looking for  investment.

These are two things I’ve never done before – hiring someone, and raising money. I’ve just started, here’s my current progress:

Finding a CTO-shaped person

Due to the age-old shitness of computer education in the UK, there is a dramatic imbalance in the supply and demand of good computer programmers. Really good devs cost a lot of money, are rarely available, and – this is a good problem – usually have ideas of their own. The kind of Ruby dev I’m looking for can comfortably charge a bank £500 a day for their services. While I am offering them the chance to change the world and make loads of money, these kind of offers are magic beans to the savvy dev, offered to them on a daily basis. So I need to offer them cash too. If my startup fails, at least they’ve been able to feed their kids during the process.

I’m stalking Ruby forums and email lists, chasing contacts and reading dev blogs, and will begin my assault soon. I did get one fantastic Ruby dev very drunk last Wednesday, and pitched him after the fourth beer. I failed, as I knew I would, because he’s setting up his own business, but he agreed to be my adviser and help me with my dev hunting, which is very handy indeed. Onwards. If you are a very talented Ruby dev with itchy feet, I will know who you are within the month. You can email me too, if you like.

Finding investment

Now this really was something I knew fuck all about. I’ve spent the last little while reading as much as I can about how it works, and talking to lots of people who know more than I do. I honestly didn’t know what “seed funding” was until about a month ago. A handy guide: Friends and family funding (up to £20k) >> Seed Funding (£50k-£300k ish, from “angels” or seed funds) >> Series A (up to around £2m, usually from Venture Capitalist (VC) funds >> Series B/C (shit loads, from rich aliens). This is probably wrong.

Anyway, turns out I’m looking for “seed funding”. I’ve scoured old TechCrunch posts and Angellist and have made a list potential seed funds and angels in London. I have met a few other very nice startuppers like George from Rentify who is pointing me in a few directions too. I’ve made my business plan, my deck (this is a word I don’t like but it’s basically a presentation), and have got lots of friends to ask me lots ­of questions that might come up.

I made my first pitch to a seed fund person last week and I was pleased with it – I didn’t puke or accidentally headbutt them, and they didn’t laugh me out of the building. I have some more meetings lined up.

Soooo….

That’s my blog. I already broke one of my rules, as this has taken about 45 minutes. I’ll update you all soon, probably.

On journalists and developers

When I started out as a journalist seven years ago, I had no idea what a developer was – columnists and editors were the rock stars of the business, the computer guys were “the IT department” who could upgrade your Photoshop or give Quark a kick when it froze.

Sadly, I’m fairly sure that the majority of journalists still think this way. It’s a real problem. But it’s also an inevitability of industrial change. Journalism is a centuries old business in which the core skills didn’t change until very, very recently – thoughts and words and layouts at the creative end, ink and presses at the production end.

When the digital age kicked in, developers were bundled into the latter camp, as they had to be – the new digital means of production needed to be built, swiftly. It wasn’t necessary for journalists to understand what was going on in the boiler room, as long as it worked. This division of labour remained as it had done for years on Fleet Street: the brains upstairs being creative, the brawn downstairs pumping out the product.

But developers, of course, are a lot more than brawn. Especially those working at news organisations. If they wanted to anonymously code and check out at the end of each day, they could be earning twice as much in other industries. The developers (and web designers, UX people etc.) I’ve worked with at news organisations are, generally, full of ideas and desperate to be creative.

And gradually, developers are coming up the stairs. But nowhere as quickly as they should be. The wall between journalists and developers may have lost a few bricks, but it’s still there. In an age when the media are desperately looking to technology to save them, the native technologists in their midst are still being largely ignored.

Why?
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Amen

Calling London-based devs, designers, devigners, wizards

Image: Dottie Mae/Some rights reserved

I’m lucky enough to know a handful of London-based developers and web designers, but nowhere near as many as I’d like to.

I’m hoping to be working on a number of media-ish projects over the next little while, in the squidgy bit in between editorial and technology. The more co-conspirators the merrier.

So, if you are a freelance developer (front or back end, HTML(5)/CSS, JS, PHP, Ruby, whatever really), iOS/Android developer, designer, UX expert, pinball wizard… please say hello.

How to survive the nibblers

Piranhas. Image: Chandra Marsono on Flickr/Some rights reserved

 

Brilliant blog by Stijn Debrouwere on “the mess the news industry is in.” The thrust? Journalism is being eaten away by a sea of nibbling sites and services. Read it. The “how to survive” bit is on the money, too:

• Amp up storytelling and personality, because those things are irreplaceable. This American Life, for instance, or The Awl.

• Acknowledge that you provide less value than you used to, downsize and capitalize on scale. What national newspapers are doing, albeit unwittingly.

• Join the revolution. Adrian Holovaty comes from journalism, but EveryBlock isn’t journalism.

• People read because they’re bored. Un-bore them, like Gawker does.

• Write to people’s passion, and they will gobble up just about anything. MacRumors and many other niche sites do this.

• Do stuff that does still matter. People are happy to support ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

Hat tip to Jay Rosen for the link.

Internet, I love you but you’re bringing me down

I’ve got a piece in tomorrow’s G2 on what happened when I did everything the internet told me for a day. In writing it, I came across lots of interesting/troubling articles on how the web is, well, turning. Here’s a handful of snippets…

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“Left to their own devices, [the web's] personalisation filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar, and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble, CNN

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“Our attention is well directed these days…  thanks to good algorithms and great curators… but it’s like a flashlight whipping around the room. Never resting, Never returning…we catch and release…”

Robin Sloan, Fish

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 “Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by Facebook. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where it goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.”

Evegeny Morozov, The Death of the Cyberflâneur, NYT

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“Google has become so good at meeting our desires that we spend less time discovering new ones … you can always get what you want. But you may not get what you need.”

Ian Leslie, In Search of Serendipity, The Economist

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“As we start to understand how people actually use the Internet, the cyberutopian hopes of a borderless, postnational planet can look as naive as most past predictions that new technologies would transform societies… A central paradox of this connected age is that while it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may be encountering a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days.”

Ethan Zuckerman, A Small World Afer All, Wilson Quarterly

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“The internet promises the idea of actualising ourselves in an essential way, but in fact we fall victim to a much cruder kind of sorting.”

Will Self, The Internet is a false friend

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“Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine.”

What Jason Lanier thinks of Technology, The New Yorker

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“The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

James Whittaker, Why I left Google, MSDN

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#JustSayin.

*Benji retreats to shed in garden to draw lines between torn out newspaper articles.*

The web and the Minimum Viable Message

I started writing a post on how the web is the perfect delivery mechanism for a Minimum Viable Message – a highly-digestible, simple, powerful idea that invites you to ‘like’ it, or sign a petition, or re-tweet it. I was just getting into how troubling this is. I was going to muse on whether a million-strong Facebook group is more or less meaningful than a dozen activists who storm a building – an actual one, IRL.

There was probably going to be a bit about how terribly easy passive support is compared to active support, and how the internet, worryingly, is much more suited to the former than the latter.  I was going to wheel out the rise and fall of #StopKony2012 as an example of just how powerful – and fickle – an online movement can be, and how this was the perfect illustration of the web exponentially disseminating highly-polished polemic, steamrolling any nuances or critique that might have stood in its way, and then doing the whole thing again in reverse. Black, then white.

I was going to maybe conclude that the web is disappointingly bad at doing debate and discussion compared to real life, where the squidgy bits in between two sides of an argument can be fully aired and indulged, at the same time, on top of each other.

Then I got a bit tired and realised I should probably go to bed, and that this has probably been written hundreds of times before, and that Matt Andrews has more or less said all this recently. Read that.

What does it mean to love something on the internet today?

Wonderful stuff from Robin Sloan. Will get you thinking.