Code and a response to art

hep

I took some time the other day to go to the Tate Britain and catch the Hepworth display. I had mixed feelings about it tbh – it was rather short and the curation was a bit odd. I didn’t get a sense of time and influence from the layout of the work so it was hard to get the context of each piece. That said, there were some remarkable pieces in there and it’s worth a visit.

I got home and felt like writing some code and so built this response to what I’d seen. I’ve always been struck by Hepworth’s use of string and the similarity with the mathematical models which I used to be fascinated by at the Science Museum when I was a kid. There is, of course, a direct influence which the exhibition touches upon here and there. In this, we see the influence of science on the arts at this time, and a direct reference in her work to non-artistic methods of visualisation.

It’s a bit of a work in progress this, limited to straight lines rather than the arced forms which Hepworth so beautifully renders. Maths is hardly my strong point but I’d like to crack that next.

What did strike me, though, was how like an artist’s process the workflow of writing code can be. You’re building something through process, shaping function and form from the clay of the tooling (language and frameworks). Making aesthetic decisions, sure, but also following a craft to create your vision. I’ve touched on this before in my experience of playing music, but I think it must be even more so with sculpture.

I suspect that all programmers could learn a lot, not only from the practises of artists, but also from their routines and the development of their craft. When I was in Barcelona earlier this year, and spent a hugely emotional afternoon at the Miró museum, I immediately bonded with the idea of Miró’s trips out of Spain to Paris in particular, where he connected with other artists. This is also true of Hepworth, whose associations, particularly with Nicholson (obviously) and Mondrian can be traced through her early work. In that respect, coding communities do a great job in bringing movements in coding together.

One could argue that we’re in a golden age of community-driven quasi-artistic movement in code. In the spirit of innovation, I’d strongly recommend learning a little about how artistic movements have helped shaped the work of great artists, and drawing some inspiration from the organic developments in the history of art which resulted.

Streaming media and the organisation of my content

I can’t help but love Spotify. Even though they have probably contributed more to the death of the record buying public than Napster (and I have a vested interest in this), Spotify + my Sonos one = beautiful.

I love Netflix as well. Libraries of great content, seamless function across devices so I can move smoothly from the living room to the bed to my friend’s house.

But something is bothering me about digital media libraries, and it’s the same thing that bothered me, constantly, when I was working at Sky alongside their EPGs. I was hoping, but failed, to do anything about it there and I feel like it’s a massive unscratched itch for me, so I’m going to just say it for now.

Why are digital media services all so bad at organising their content?

I’m sitting here in Spotify right now, trying to create a mirror of my record collection. Simple enough task. It’s a data collection. A collection of objects bearing properties like:

 id:
 title:
 artist:
 spotify url:
 artwork url:

etc. I’m pretty sure that Spotify has all this metadata available. I know that Netflix has it. So why then do they not surface it within an interface to allow users to make their own decisions about filtering and organising the content that they are interested in?

I have sat in many planning and UX meetings where product owners have argued over the ‘perfect’ view of their content. But, when you consider that the final output of this is inherently dynamic – literally a collection of pixels within an interface – then this is absurd. If Spotify’s interface was in hardware I could understand it, but why can’t we have a more dynamic method of organising and filtering our libraries? If you consider the interface not as a perfect solution for a lowest common denominator audience but instead as a dynamic, realtime view of the data model, then you would be rewarded with far greater engagement with the service.

One big problem with content selection and discovery is that not only is my taste in media completely subjective, but so is the selection I’m likely to make at the point I’m making it. This is governed entirely by what I’m in the mood for right now and this is where the static interface lets me down.

In Netflix’s case this means that I have to scroll through reams of useless suggestions, based on something I recently watched in a completely different context to what I want now. Much has been written about Netflix’s powerful metadata engines, why can’t some of this power be placed into the hands of the users to filter their library to show me custom suggestions which I control (because despite the internet thinking it knows everything about me and my tastes, it doesn’t have a scooby about what I’m looking for right at this moment). We have been obsessed for years now about finding the perfect algorithm and the perfect UX, but we are missing the benefits of handing the reins over to the user to make the decisions that only they know best how to make.

But I’ve always thought of any collection of related objects precisely as a ‘data collection’. I would be shocked if this is, indeed, not how it’s handled programatically in the software. Give your users the power which your software enjoys.

In Spotify’s case, my only option is to search (and how often do I really know what I’m looking for until I get inspired by something?), or to rely on my playlists, which I can only ever have one view of, a nested tree. Further filtering is available in the main window view, but only on a track by track basis. My record collection alone is probably a couple of thousand albums, and that’s before I even get into all the stuff that I don’t own but sometimes want to listen to, guiltily (and this is where Spotify and Netflix shine – just don’t assume that means I want to listen to/watch it all the time, the biggest flaw of any recommendations engine which has no context to my decision at that time).

Give me the following please guys:

+ The ability to browse my collection visually, listed by artist, genre, microgenre, record label, year or any other piece of metadata you hold. Album covers are vital – there is always much higher recognition of a visual image than parsing thousands of lines of text. Let me sort it. Give me subtractive filtering tools so that I can gradually narrow down to my choice

+ The ability to scan a barcode on my CD or Vinyl and match it to the Spotify collection (or at the very least search by UPC)

+ A decent query engine instead of keyword search. So if I’m in the mood for East coast political hiphop or secular renaissance madrigals you can surface me some content. In Netflix case, they actually do this anyway to power their suggestions, so why can’t I make my own queries against their formidable metadata? (and whilst I’m here, why can I not permanently see recent additions – sometimes it’s there, sometimes not…agh!)

+ The ability to batch organise, add, delete my playlists and collections. Tidying up my library the other day was RSI-inducing.

+ Multiple views of my playlists in a proper interface of it’s own, not just in the sidebar. Make it off-canvas if you need to. Hell, even a separate companion app. Function follows form when it comes to interfaces and if your form is crippled, so will the functionality be.

+ The ability to import/export my collection. Even better, open up the organisation, favouriting and playlisting of content to an external API so that other developers can do it better if you can’t.

Streaming services have metadata right at the heart of their product and, by insisting on a restrictive interface for users to only surface and organise their huge content repository the Netflix/Spotify/iTunes/Play Music way, they are, for me at least, hugely restricting the service’s usefulness.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt in the digital age, it’s only a matter of time until someone comes along and does it better.

On Rachmaninoff and failing fast

“Failing fast” is an oft discussed principle for innovation, levied particularly at large, risk averse companies that are struggling to innovate in the digital realm.

It stands to reason that you don’t fail at what you already know how to do. It also follows that if you’re only doing what you already know how to do (or following ‘standard practice’) then it is unlikely that you’ll innovate. We learn, and innovate, by stepping outside of our comfort zone and going into uncharted territory. It’s not so much a case of ‘failing’ but having the courage to tackle the unfamiliar or the difficult, being prepared to make mistakes, and working through them until you know how to do it.

I am a *very* lapsed pianist. After going through the grade system, during a childhood of constant study of music, I didn’t really play the piano properly for years. As I have returned to the instrument in adulthood, I’ve found that my ‘chops’ are not what they once were, and I stumble around pieces that I would have been able to play fluidly. I’m a tinkerer most of the time, playing the simple stuff, improvising, allowing myself to make mistakes without correcting them and I tended for a long time to ignore harder passages or unfamiliar pieces because my technique wouldn’t allow it.

Lately though, circumstance has given me a new goal in my musical life which I think acts as a neat analogy for the importance of failure in business. The Rachmaninoff C#m prelude is an awe-inspiring and fear inducing piece of music. It’s in a difficult key, with sections where your hands have to counter-intuitively cross over one another. In the latter section, the score moves onto two staves – sight reading this alone is a head scratcher for an amateur pianist – so many notes, so many accidentals. Better stay safe and rattle through some comfortable Beethoven instead.

Rach Cm Score

And yet, as I make a concerted effort to play it, the piece’s logic starts to unfold for me. Even the last section that is so daunting on the page follows an actually deceptively simple logic – block chords, moving in parallel. Find the right shape with one hand and the other will follow. It requires accuracy and concentration for sure, but if I slow down, repeat parts which I’m stumbling over, become comfortable in the key so that my hands naturally find the shapes they need to be and bring out each phrase fluidly, the more the piece comes together.

And tonight, I actually got through the whole piece, a piece I’ve wanted to be able to play all my life, from beginning to end. It was messy and played with many mistakes, but the notes don’t seem so daunting to me anymore, and I don’t stop at the splitting of the stave as I so often have in the past. In fact one of the reasons why I often stopped at this point was that I love this piece, and it pained me when my execution of it didn’t sound like I know it should.

This pushing through the pain point has also had an interesting side effect – after an hour or so of playing the Rachmaninov, when I subsequently play an easier, familiar piece, say Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin, I play it fluidly, almost effortlessly, my fingers moving across each phrase with such ease that all my attention can be placed on the expression of my performance, and it opens up new capabilities within my technique that makes other difficult pieces far less of an ordeal to play.

As we come to tackle unknown territory in technology, in business, even in our everyday lives, we will *not* learn, grow, innovate or refine our skills, knowledge and capability if we stick to the strategies that we already know. We have to embrace unknown territory, not be disheartened if we fail, break the problem down and work through each section until it untangles before us.

The fear of failure in a large business is analogous to hearing a piece of music played badly. If the work you are producing does not ‘sound right’ – if it doesn’t match to what we think our business output should look like, or what our market expects, then we often deem it a failure and don’t progress further, and this is what kills any innovation.

But if we stick through it, working through each difficult passage and learn from our mistakes, then not only will we achieve things we never knew that we could, but it will also make what we already know how to do easier.

And this is how the damage is done

I know this will be a little off topic – I’ve never felt driven to write about the death of somebody I don’t know personally before. I’ve also never really felt saddened by it. Shocked perhaps, maybe even curious. But I’ve never sat with a tear rolling down my cheek listening to their work and wanting to talk about it until hearing, this evening, about the passing of Nick Talbot, the main creative force behind Gravenhurst.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Gravenhurst. I was in Smallfish Records in Old Street. Mike, as usual, had given me a stack of the glitchy, messy, bleepy electronic music which I love and I was standing at the back of the narrow shop skipping the tone arm across each record, looking for something to grab me. Only I realised a few records in that I wasn’t listening to them – I was listening to a voice as pure and direct as any I have ever known floating through the shop PA. I left the shop with a copy of Flashlight Seasons on both vinyl and CD and have listened to that album every single month since.

In 2004 I broke up with a long term girlfriend and moved to Sheffield. Somewhere around junction 26 of the M1, driving my hire van with my life in the back, the betrayal of the woman I loved fading behind me, The Ice Tree came on the stereo and I ended up in hysterical tears to the extent that I had to pull into services and let it all out. “I caress where my lover once lay by my side / Before I turned inwards and forced her to fly”.

And a few years later, and more than once, I’ve had moments where life has seemed insurmountable – where my faults and regrets have overwhelmed me – and Nick’s soft intelligence has placed it’s hand on my heart and centred me again. Flashlight Seasons in particular is more than a record for me – I cannot bear to imagine my world without it.

and it’s the words that get you. The voice, yes, the production, of course. But the turn of phrase: “The magic of stones / when taken back home / is left on the beach”. “Emily said, the things in my head are keeping me from sleeping / If I don’t go to them, they’ll come for me instead, and the company I’m keeping”. “Still the ties that bind us, blind us to the emptiness of the prize”.

I cannot think of another artist whose work – not just a song or a record – but an ENTIRE body of work has caused so much emotional response from me.

I’m not a music journalist and I can’t tell you whether or not Gravenhurst are “important” or give you Nick’s musical lineage (I fear Elliot Smith with be invoked in the obits). All that I can say is that if you love music, really love it…if it fills your soul, centres you and gives life meaning to you, then you know how rarely it is that you connect to an artist so completely. From The Velvet Cell to Animals to The Prize (oh god, The Prize – why is this man not bigger than Jesus?) to She Dances to the heartbreaking, stripped down honesty of The Diver and Damage – This is music to save your life and I can’t stop thinking about how sad it is that it couldn’t save his.

I have tickets sitting right here on my desk to see him at The Scala next Tuesday. I might go down there anyway – see if I can see the ghost on the shore and raise a pint to him.

Sleep well Nick. I never met you, but you have meant more to me than I have words to express.

If your kids are more digital than your business, then you’re in trouble.

It continues to surprise me, here in 2014, that “Digital Transformation” is still a hot topic. We’ve lived with the internet for a solid 20 years now and it is, without a shadow of a doubt, a fundamental part of our daily lives. We meet our partners with it. We browse, research and shop with it. It entertains and educates us. There is barely a single element of our lives that it is not a part of. My five year old son navigates its interfaces and experiences with effortless speed and without instruction (sometimes worryingly so). So why, when even our kids are immersed in technology every day, are businesses still discussing digital transformation and why, when the rest of our lives have long been transformed by being digital, have so many companies still not?

It’s a book rather than blog sized question, but here are a few thoughts as to why:

1. You still think it’s about marketing
The web (just one part of the internet after all) was only envisaged by Sir Tim as a way of publishing contextually linked documents across a world-wide network of computers. When companies started to harness it for commercial use, it was natural that it was regarded as a broadcast medium. Since then it’s been under constant evolution. We’ve had web 2.0, where the web became an application platform to deliver services (like ecommerce). We’ve seen the rise of the social web, where people connected with people (and businesses have had to think like people to succeed). We’ve had the smartphone revolution which has put a powerful and, vitally, individually personal computer with a permanent connection to the internet in everybody’s pocket. We now see the emergence of the internet and things which connects us to our lifestyles and environments. Yet digital strategy (and, vitally, budget), is still too often confined to marketing departments and executed as an extension to the media plan. People no longer consume the web, they use it like a utility. If your digital strategy is still just focusing on broadcasting brand messages, then you’re only using a fraction of it’s potential.

2. Your IT policies are still thinking in Enterprise terms
Enterprise IT is very good at infrastructure and operations. It is, largely, useless at digital. This is because technology is only one part of being digital. This revolution has not been about platforms and systems, it’s been about people and their lives. IT does not do people very well. It does vendors and processes and governance. These things have an important part to play, particularly where security is paramount, but all too often the interfaces, services and experiences delivered across that infrastructure are crippled by design due to restrictive policies, outdated delivery processes and coding standards and long term investment whose usefulness expires almost as soon as the ink is dry on the vendor contract. If your company’s IT policies are regressive (check the version number of the corporate approved browser you’re reading this on) then you are not equipped to deal with the ongoing evolution of being digital and your customers are already enjoying better service with a competitor that is.

3. You don’t invest in research
Nobody, not even the most expensive consultants that agencies can offer, is an ‘expert’ on digital. There are no gurus. The landscape changes too rapidly. To stay ahead, one must work with the medium, be immersed in it’s culture, prototype, test, learn, implement and adapt. This does not happen in “5 year plans”. The digital landscape will be unrecognizable in 5 years. Kickstarter, Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp didn’t exist 5 years ago. Staying ahead in digital only happens through a constant thread of product and strategic development and the investment in this must not be on the basis of ‘projects’ but as an ongoing commitment to making full use of the opportunities that being digital presents. This also means not being afraid to make some mistakes along the way which can be a hard sell in a competitive market.

Startups can be disruptive because all they *are* is research and development. They have an idea, they build an MVP to test the validity of this idea. They release executions of this idea rapidly, learning and shaping their product according to the feedback they get from their customers and the data they generate. They are also very good at making mistakes, learning and adapting as they go. This gives them an agility that is at the core of their ability to disrupt markets.

If you spend a year planning a project before you build, that strategy will already be redundant by the time it’s ready to launch. If your strategy and technology is based on competitor analysis, particularly in the startup market, you are looking at their strategy from a year ago and are already behind the curve before you’ve started. Innovation is born not of asking your customer what they want or looking at how your competitors achieve it, but in working out what your customer needs and harnessing the technology and the medium to deliver it.

4. You’re not applying the culture of the internet to your business
The internet is not really about the technology that drives it, it’s about what people use it for. Technology is just there to help solve those problems, but the user does not and should not ever care about that (bar those of us that get excited about a point update to Android). This means that it has a cultural place in our lives. For many businesses, their engagement with culture stops at brand. Understanding the place that being digital has in our day to day lives is key to harnessing the medium effectively and this understanding must be shared all the way up to the CEO. It is no surprise to me that heavily siloed businesses are often the ones that struggle most to understand how the internet is actually used. If digital is impacting every aspect of our lives, then it should be the responsibility of every aspect of one’s business, from marketing to finance to product to customer groups to planning to technology to engage with digital projects and achieve a holistic digital vision.

In short, the world, it’s markets, it’s customers and their lifestyles have already transformed into being digital. If your business is still struggling with this revolution then you’ve got some work to do…And if you need some help, I know a 5-year-old with an iPad that’d be happy to show you the ropes!