Form and function

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2011

As I progress into my thirties, I’m becoming more aware of my status as a demographic that is targeted with nostalgia-based marketing. In terms of pop culture ephemera, I’ve remained relatively immune – the mainstream music and fashion of the eighties repelled me at the time, and has not lost its power to do so – but there is no escape; the technology industry has matured to an extent which allows it to mine its own past for aesthetic triggers that hit us lifelong early adopters like a punch to the gut, even when the product itself is quite obviously pointless in practical terms.

Point in case: Commodore returning to the computer hardware market with Linux-powered PCs dolled up in the form factors of their classic consumer-level home computers. This is the C64x:

Commodore C64x

Hi-ho, atemporality; there’s no point whatsoever in buying one of those unless you’re jonesing for the “authenticity” of the near past (which is itself pretty close to mythological anyway). Though we’re not quite at the point where ubicomp is a reality, Commodore’s “new” products represent an interesting point in the commodification curve of computing. Function is so cheap and easy to produce that form no longer has to play second fiddle; there’s more computing juice in your smartphone than was used to run the entire Apollo moon landings program, and you can shoehorn a useable computer into pretty much any container you desire. (Worth noting that this was an enthusiast’s hobby long before the manufacturers jumped the bandwagon; casemodding has transcended its initial geeks-only cachet thanks to economies of scale.)

When computers first arrived, they looked like the vast, complex and aesthetically sterile engineering devices that they were. Now computing is sufficiently ubiquitous that they can look like whatever we want them to look like (which means that making them look like older and significantly less powerful machines is a momentary fillip of aesthetic irony; expect an imminent rash of computers that don’t look anything like what folk of my age-bracket think of when we hear the word “computer” – remember the Sandbenders custom computer from Bill Gibson’s Idoru?). The end-point of the curve will be the point where computers become effectively invisible; I hesitate to predict a solid time-scale for that, but I’d be surprised if it takes more than another decade.


The Hollywood Stock Exchange, and bands with shareholders

Paul Raven @ 26-02-2010

If investment bankers can gamble on the success of big-money projects, why can’t the rest of us? Well, of course, we can – but those sort of big-money projects aren’t the sort of thing that get us normal folk excited, nor the sort of thing we understand (or think we understand) sufficiently to throw our money after.

But if you scratch a film buff, underneath you’ll find someone who thinks they can predict how well a movie will do once it gets released… and Hollywood reckons that’s an as-yet untapped source of funding for big-budget blockbusters. Hence HSX, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, is set to re-launch in April of this year as a real-money commodity exchange [via SlashDot]:

Since 1998, HSX has allowed just-for-fun traders to buy and sell valueless shares in Hollywood films based on forecasts of what the pics will ring up. Once launched, a new HSX site will list current and imminent movie releases with their projected four-week domestic grosses and allow exchange users to take long or short positions on the films.

A formal announcement about rules and guidelines for HSX users is expected closer to the launch. The exchange hopes to lure hobbyist investors as well as industry professionals, though the latter will be prohibited from improper insider activity.

For instance, distribution execs with access to early boxoffice data will be barred from making trades on the exchange after a film has opened. But film financiers will be allowed to invest in HSX an amount equal to a minority percentage of their total investment in a movie.

(Oh, man, you just know there’s gonna be some spectacular gaming of this system at some point, assuming it lasts long enough for gaming it to be worthwhile. It’s just too tempting, especially for such a historically desperate and greedy industry.)

Investors wishing to participate in the exchange will buy “contracts” priced at one one-millionth of a film’s projected boxoffice, with films to be listed on the exchange from the time productions are announced in the industry trade papers. Trading will begin six months before a movie’s anticipated wide release.

I make no claims to financial expertise of any kind, but I think I’d still assume that the safest way to gamble on the future of Hollywood properties would be to invest in something else entirely…

But a thought occurred to me while reading about HSX, namely that something like a stock purchasing model might act as a sort of bolt-on or extension to the crowdfunding models for creatives that we were discussing the other week. Say you’re in a band, you’ve done a few national tours, self-released an album, got some buzz going. How do you take things to the next step?

Systems like the newly-in-administration SellaBand are all well and good, but there’s still an intermediary middle-man involved, and the investment is conditional as well as project-specific; so why not just float your band (or your two-person animation studio, or yourself as a writer, or your guerrilla puppetry theatre mob or whatever) like a public company, offering shares to potential investors in exchange for their influence and input on what the band does? Product replaces dividends, tours and appearances are booked according to geographical distribution of fans, etc etc… it’s a bit like Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans idea, I guess, but much more formalised, with legally-binding obligations in both directions.

I’m pretty sure someone could knock up a software suite for managing all the paperwork necessary in order to make this happen, though I’ll confess that my knowledge of buisness law is sufficiently lacking that I have no idea whether or not it is legal (let alone practical, given the lack of a trusted and reliable micropayments platform and the morass if international business law). Can anyone in the audience shed a light on some of the details?

And more to the point, would anyone like to buy shares in Futurismic? We may not be profitable, but we’ve got a warehouse full of kudos… 😉


“Good enough” computing – will the recession kill off Microsoft?

Paul Raven @ 24-04-2009

laptop and netbookThis speculative futurism thing is starting to spread! Keir Thomas, Linux columnist for PC World, has posted a future retrospective piece that looks back from 2025 to the present day as the dawn of “good enough” computing… and the beginning of the end for Microsoft.

The lack of desire to relinquish XP by users was part of what became known as the “Good Enough” revolution in both software and hardware. At the beginning of the 21st century, computing hardware had evolved sufficiently to reach a level of performance that allowed for speedy execution of virtually all common computing tasks. Prior to this, the only way to guarantee good performance was to buy expensive cutting-edge hardware. But now chips costing just a few dollars offered more performance than most people would ever need.

Upgrading became less a matter of getting a better PC than about simply replacing old and broken computers with newer models. Ever resourceful during the Great Recession that struck in the early 21st century, PC manufacturers responded with ultra-cheap but “good enough” computers (both laptops and desktops) that were designed to be simple slot-in replacements for existing computers. PC manufacturers had already carved this route with netbook computers, where the goal was to be cheap and usable, with little if any frills.

Obviously there’s an element of fun-poking to Thomas’s piece (alongside the enduring positivity of the committed Linux evangelist) but as a piece of speculative futurism it’s a solid and plausible job. The details may well work out differently – and I’d be surprised to see even the recently-beleaguered Microsoft drop out of the game quite that easily – but the idea of computing as commodity was raised by Charlie Stross a year and a half ago, and many others since. As the line between mobile devices and ‘proper’ computers continues to blur (and convergence with phone handsets accelerates), Thomas’s future doesn’t look too fictional at all. [via the spiritual home of the Linux-takes-all story, SlashDot; image by Matthew Verso]


Grid2.0 – electricity as commodity

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2009

electricity pylonsMuch attention is currently (arf!) focussed on making our energy grids cheaper and more efficient, with lots of new ideas being batted around. Here’s a proposal which already appears to be working in one region: start treating electricity as a commodity as well as a utility.

Treat electricity like a commodity—something for which you can gauge demand and set a price in advance. That’s what New England’s independent system operator started doing last year. In its Forward Capacity Market, the ISO projects how much power the region will need three years ahead and then runs a descending-clock auction for the right to provide it. The ISO doesn’t care whether it gets its power from increased production of megawatts or from efficiencies added to the system, so-called negawatts. The agency simply sets the starting price.

Result: money saved in power plants and wires, more stable electricity bills, and a homegrown incubator for getting bright green ideas off the drawing board.

Anything that can prevent my quarterly electricty bill from doubling in cost as it did over the winter just past sounds like a good plan to me, though I’m never astonishingly keen on introducing middleman agencies into an already costly system.

Furthermore, I’m not sure how much protection the commodity trading of electricity would grant us from the civilisation-smashing power of solar weather[image by aloshbennett]


Computing as commodity – an economic singularity approaching?

Paul Raven @ 27-11-2007

Asus Eee notebook computer Charlie Stross has been shopping – and he’s pretty impressed with the Asus Eee notebook he bought. Not because it’s particularly powerful (which by current standards it isn’t, really) but because he feels it represents a turning point in the commoditization of computer technology:

“The Eee isn’t an order of magnitude cheaper than a normal laptop but it is close to an order of magnitude cheaper than previous ultra-lightweight subnotebooks. And I think I’m going to use it as a pointer to a future trend in the computer business, at the low end. The Eee is about 8 times as powerful as that 1998 Omnibook, at a quarter the price. That’s an improvement of half an order of magnitude in one direction and close to a full order in the other. And it’s a tipping point, I think, showing that the price points that have defined the goal posts for the personal computer business aren’t set in stone.”

As Stross points out, client-side power is becoming less necessary as well as cheaper – at least outside of boutique markets like the one Apple has staked out for itself. And this is a good thing, surely? Well, it would seem so at first. But with the science fiction writer’s instinctive “what if?” chops, Stross looks beyond the immediate:

“… how deep will be the recession that follows once the personal computing industry deflates to its natural value (i.e. peanuts)?”

Ouch. Double-edged sword. [Image by UnwiredBen]

[tags]computing, technology, commodity, economics[/tags]