Riskgaming

Orthogonal Bet: A technology vibe shift from utopian Star Trek to absurdist Douglas Adams?

Description

This is the inaugural episode of an on-going mini-series for the Riskgaming podcast we’re dubbing the Orthogonal Bet. Organized by our scientist-in-residence ⁠Sam Arbesman⁠, the goal is to take a step back from the daily machinations that I, ⁠Danny Crichton⁠, generally host on the podcast to look at what Sam describes as “…the interesting, the strange, and the weird. Ideas and topics that ignite our curiosity are worthy of our attention, because they might lead to advances and insights that we can’t anticipate.”

To that end, today our guest is ⁠Matt Webb⁠, a virtuoso tinkerer and creative whose experiments with interaction design and technology have led to such apps as the ⁠Galaxy Compass⁠ (an app that features an arrow pointing to the center of the universe) and ⁠Poem/1⁠, a hardware clock that offers a rhyming poem devised by AI. He’s also a regular essayist on his blog Interconnected.

We latched onto Matt’s recent ⁠essay⁠ about a vibe shift that’s underway in the tech world from the utopian model of progress presented in Star Trek to the absurd whimsy of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Along the way, we also discuss Neal Stephenson, the genre known as “design fiction,” Stafford Beer and management cybernetics, the 90s sci-fi show Wild Palms, and how artificial intelligence is adding depth to the already multitalented.

Episode Produced by Chris Gates

Music by George Ko & Suno

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
Well, Matt, I'm so excited to have you join. Sam had recommended me your article about this vibe shift that's going on in technology. I was so entranced by it, that's why you were on the show. What you point out is this concept of, yeah, we all reference Star Trek. We all have watched Star Trek. I personally am a Deep Space Nine fan which puts me in that little camp of people who are superior to everyone else.
But nonetheless, the tricorder, transporters, warp drive, all these different symbols and concepts we now see in our own world so we're trying to build a universal translator through LLMs. We're trying to use better sensors, technologies, to create the tricorder, etc., etc. But you actually noticed that there's a vibe shift away from Star Trek or maybe Snow Crash or something, Neal Stephenson work, into what you dubbed the Douglas Adams world. And I just wanted to start with just the thesis in the subject right there of your blog post.

Matt Webb:
It seems to be an amazing thing, right? I grew up and it was all about Star Trek inventions. We had the universal translator, the comms badge, the tricorder. It's like the mobile phone, the Holodeck. Obviously now, we would go, "That's like a proto-metaverse." But technology today does not feel like it dropped out of 24th century utopia. It's pretty absurd. This actually did not start as an original observation. I was on a podcast, WB-40, and one of the hosts, Lisa Riemers, said about my own inventions. She was like, "Those could be very Douglas Adams thing. They come straight out of Hitchhiker's Guide." The more it looked at it, the more I was like, "This feels like a general shift." Let's take AI. Let's just go straight into large language models, that is an absurd technology. Who would've thought that you could hoover up the internet, shred it, make a great big pile out of what's left, talk to it, and it talks back? That is a Douglas Adams technology right there.

Samuel Arbesman:
I was just wondering, do you think that it's one of these... There's the absurd technologies themselves and there's also just the fact that I feel like maybe the tech world has almost taken itself too seriously for too long. Are those two things that cross purposes? Are they one and the same in terms of this vibe shift that you're thinking about?

Matt Webb:
I think there's so many interesting ways we can unpack this. We just grew up in a very sane Star Trek-y belief in progress kind of world and we've moved on from that. And maybe technology was always this absurd. Is it that maybe we have different reference points? We started going, "Oh, we're all watching Star Trek, let's make it." And now, people grow up with a different kind of science fiction. Maybe it's something intrinsic to technology itself.
I think that's the really interesting thing to unpack because this article I wrote in my blog caught the imagination of a lot of people but nobody really agrees why. I think even with Star Trek, right? Do we have the technology we have today because people copied it from Star Trek or was it that the Star Trek writers were so immersed in their current day of technology that they were picking from what was already being researched and extrapolating?

Samuel Arbesman:
Certainly with Star Trek. And so, about... It was 10, 15 years ago, I was at the St. Louis Science Center. They actually had an exhibit of Star Trek props, costumes, and things like that. I remember looking at the pad from Next Generation and the communicator from the original series and you look at these things and you're like, "These are bad versions of the things we have already." And so, I think to a certain degree maybe they were anticipating the trends. But it's one of those weird things where on the one hand they're saying, "Okay. Maybe this is the kind of thing that will be in the future," but the speed of that was just way off. These things happened in decades as opposed to hundreds and hundreds of years.
But at the same time though, I feel like there's different pieces of Star Trek you can pick out. There's the very serious Star Trek of maybe Next Generation. Although there is a little bit of playfulness versus the campiness of the original series or the absurdity of Lower Decks which is the new cartoon one. Lower Decks is also a very much of this moment technology and the world is just weird, let's just lean into this.
And so, in terms of the feedback there... This is a long way of saying, "I'm not really sure which one it is." I definitely think people grew up with these things and wanted to make them a reality. At the same time though, I think the people who are writing these stories were saying... They were very much of the moment. And so, when it was of the moment of like, "Okay. Technology is this force for good and a force for change," that created a certain style of storytelling. Versus moment right now where it's like, "Okay. This stuff is all super weird and let's just tell stories that are recognizing that everything is bizarre and strange."

Danny Crichton:
No, I think if you look back, Douglas Engelbart did his famous The Mother of All Demos in 1968. Showing the mouse, showing the user interface, all these different technologies that were going to come. I think if you were to go back into cybernetics, go back into the artificial intelligence in the 1960s, we knew what the end destination was. We have a artificial general intelligence. We have a computer you can talk to with voice. You have these pads and ways of using interfaces to connect with data and technology.
The challenge has been, for decades, to actually build it. We knew what we wanted, we just couldn't get there. Even the universal tricorder is a great example of we all just want to scan our bodies with a handheld device and be like, "Look, here's what's going wrong with you." I still go to a doctor and they pull blood with a phlebotomist from 1800s technology. So there's still that dichotomy. To me, it is a little bit more Star Trek to technologists because we actually have interviews. I mean, we have folks who... I think even Steve Charles has mentioned this. People said, "I was inspired by this and I wanted to go build that. And that's what I spent my life doing." And so, I think the causality is obviously both. But there's some good evidence that folks first saw the imagination and then led to that which is why your vibe shift is so important because the imagination is what drives people's innovation.

Matt Webb:
I think it's probably a little more muddied than that kind of causation. So think of something like 2001, Kubrick's 2001. 1968, right? The two moments that stand out for me there are not about HAL, right? The talking computer. One is that they're incidentally using a device that looks very much like an iPad on the Discovery. And the RAM Tablet, which is the first prototype of a tablet was 1964 based on Ivan Sutherland's sketch pad. So that's like, "That's in the air," when Kubrick's making this.
The second thing is the video call that Heywood Floyd does from the moon talking to his daughter who is just like any Skype call with a young kid is wriggling around and not really looking at the screen and half falling off her chair. They're both incredibly realistic moments that nowadays we would call, in my world, design fiction. Where you take a prop and you talk about a future and that helps you understand the context of the technology in use and the interaction design and it brings it to life in a way which is way more real than just talking about it.
So we have something which is a technological prototype or an opening up, comes into fiction, and then inspires people because they see it in maybe a broader context than just that prototype to make something. Maybe you need that entire kind of arc and we see it a bit with a couple of famous Neal Stephenson ones with the Metaverse in Snow Crash and Young Lady's Illustrated Primer in Diamond Age. I think you are right to put your finger on the Douglas Adams ones feel different with this absurdity and I do have a couple of theories about why this is

Danny Crichton:
Don't leave us hanging.

Samuel Arbesman:
Yeah. I want to hear these theories.

Matt Webb:
My first theory is this didn't directly come out of Douglas Adams' imagination. So just like the Star Trek or 2001 histories, he had been reading things which look like they make the way into the fiction. So I don't have any direct proof of this other than a mention by Andrew Pickering. He wrote a great book called The Cybernetic Brain which is a history of British cybernetics. British cybernetics was very different from US cybernetics. More based around psychiatry, really absurd and some fascinating characters. One in particular is Stafford Beer.
So Stafford Beer comes up with the theory of organizations like management cybernetics. He talks about how you could have a network of mice that would solve differential equations. He had a pond in his basement because he had this belief that let's say you take a factory, instead of commoditizing the factory, you can commoditize management. So the thing at the middle has inputs and outputs and in between, it makes decisions. His claim is that any sufficiently complex thing in the right environment could become a brain. Such as, he said, "A woodland pond," which is an incredibly [inaudible 00:08:37] thing with weeds and bugs and dirty water. The inputs could be light that would fire up the algae and the outputs would be maybe literally like how much light gets through.
And so, he built this. He goes [inaudible 00:08:52] wood and he collects a pond. He puts it in a tank in his basement and he hangs lights into it and he picks up with the sensors and he tries to open communications. There's a great essay where he tries to do this. "It looks like," Pickering says, "It looks like Douglas Adams had been reading a lot of cybernetics." So the talking mice and the hitchhikers look like they come from this Stafford Beer explanation. The description of the creation of the infinite improbability drive, to me, sounds like Stafford Beer's pond.
So if you don't remember intimately the invention of the infinite improbability drive, it gets mentioned by Adams in the book as like, "Infinite improbability is a field which is very, very hard to do." And then, one intern one night after a party goes, "Well, I just need to calculate how improbable this thing is. Get a source of entropy like a hot cup of tea, dip in the sensor, and turn it on." And then, the thing just pops into existence. It's a very Stafford Beer idea. And so, we've got this half of the story the same as Star Trek, right? We've got the technology, it goes to fiction. What's happened over the last couple of years is we've got the other half of the story, the fiction is beginning to track back into reality. Now, we can start using it as something to inspire us because it turns out we can kind of close that loop.

Samuel Arbesman:
One of the things I'm just wondering is when you look at, what Danny was saying, like very early on in the 1960s in addition to thinking about Doug Engelbart and the machine human collaboration interaction, there was also... And relating to more, I guess, American cybernetics, like Norbert Wiener, people were anticipating all of these issues around alignment and issues of unanticipated consequences of AI and things like that. And of course, now we have them here. And so, I wonder if the vibe shift is less that... Okay. There's this swarm intelligences that we think about and more about whistling past the graveyard kind of thing of like, "Oh my god. There's all these really worrisome things. And so, let's instead just focus on making playful fun things." Do you feel like that's a component here too?

Matt Webb:
Now, for me, I use playfulness very deliberately. So my day job is I work in product invention with small companies and big ones. My practice is to try and not take it too seriously. So I'll give you an example. So for 20 years, we've understood digital really, really well. It's like if you come up with a product idea, you fire off a team and we all know how long it takes for a team of 12 to do such and such project or what the KPIs will be and how the business will work. That is not true for AI. I would say we're imagination bottlenecked.
So Nat Freeman has this line that we're in... The overhang is really that there are loads of things we would do if only we could think of them. He's like, "Even if we stopped researching now, it would take ten years to catch up with what the consequences are," and that tracks for me. I built a website a year ago that, from experience, would take me about four days. And I used GPT to do the backend work and it took me 20 minutes and 20 bucks on my credit card.
In Moore's law terms, four days down to 20 minutes is about a decade. So like, "Okay." So out of nowhere, we... Computers got ten years better. How do we imagine what we can do with that? We don't sit there on whiteboards and figure it out. Or at least, I don't. You have to bump yourself out of your regular imaginative grooves. One of the ways of doing that is to be slightly absurd about it. I was working a couple of months ago on a piece of work exploring human AI interaction. So what if the AI is trying to move beyond chat? Like this linear chat.
What if my teammates and I was stuck? Because once you start thinking like that, you're like, "Oh, I need to be able to talk to them. They need to act exactly like my colleagues. What if I ask them what are they doing later? Is there going to be some confusion?" The answer for me was to go, "Well, I'm going to be interacting with these AIs who are not human. They're really smart but they're not human. What else is like that? Oh, really smart animals like dogs or dolphins." So I modeled them on dolphins.
I went back to a piece of work by the architectural practice Ant Farm in 1974 who built a dolphin embassy, this beautiful architectural project where all these humans and dolphins come together. All my AIs spoke back in little high-pitched squeaks... And it liberated me and I was able then to start thinking about how would we interact when we can escape from language. I modeled all my graphics on this. I talked to people about it as if we were talking to dolphins. And I started finding my way into AI as teammates and how they would be proactive and how they would use proxemics to show their confidence in being able to interject and so on and so forth.

Danny Crichton:
Let me ask you. Let's go to a different direction. So when I think of Star Trek, I think of technologies that are complete. The plot lines are when the technologies break. But in general, the Holodeck functions, the communicators work, the tricorder functions, everything is dot. That's part of the reason why Star Trek has this sort of utopic sense to it is the replicators aren't [inaudible 00:13:49] things incorrectly when you ask them except in the one plot line for the one episode that you need for that particular week.
Whereas when we look at LLMs and AI today, is it the case that Douglas Adams, in addition to just being absurd, is just also looking at technologies from a more early fanciful stage? At that beta stage where, as you pointed out, with the infinite improbability machine, the intern puts the hot cup of tea there, it just works. And you're at that laboratory discovery phase where it's like, "Yes, you can just have post-it notes because you dropped the rubber in the right vat. And suddenly, you have an invention." Whereas Star Trek is this completely finalized, this is the asymptote, this is the telos of the entirety of scientific development.

Matt Webb:
It's a really interesting idea, isn't it? I don't remember any technology development in any of Adams's stories. And I'm thinking not just now about Hitchhiker's where, of course, there's the guide which is upgraded halfway through. But that's the content, not the book itself, right? Then if you remember h2g2.com which was an attempt to build a real-life Hitchhiker's Guide on the web. Starts around the same time that Wikipedia started. What kind of future could we have been in? But the technology there is... It's in the background, isn't it? Star Trek was a techie show. You can have episodes which are about the Holodeck, I suppose, and probe the edges of it in good, science fictional style. And Hitchhiker's doesn't have that vibe for me. There's only one show I know which talked about the development of technology really, really well and that's a show from the '90s called Wild Palms. Do you ever run across that?

Samuel Arbesman:
No.

Danny Crichton:
I have not.

Matt Webb:
Favorite science fiction show.

Samuel Arbesman:
Right. There's the early stage versus the completed stage. And then, there's the serious versus absurd. I see how maybe it's this four quadrant thing there as well. Right. Because I can see... Yeah. And maybe Douglas Adams is just the quadrant where it's, "Okay. The technology is completed but it's still wonky and weird." Where it's like, "Okay. Things are pushed out. They're ostensibly completed. But they either break or they do weird things and we've just, I guess, been conditioned to live in that world of imperfection or just weird things." I don't know. Does that resonate?

Matt Webb:
Yeah. It's weird, isn't it? Because the technology in Douglas Adams's books is capricious, isn't it?

Samuel Arbesman:
Right.

Matt Webb:
The robots are grumpy. The doors sigh at you. The corporations are not very nice. It does feel very now, doesn't it?

Samuel Arbesman:
Right.

Matt Webb:
I mean, technology takes a long time for us to figure out what it's for. The first commercial web browser was what? '93? '94? I think Apple licensed Amazon's one click patent on e-commerce in 2000, so it was still something which was regarded as none obvious. I think it's not just we're using absurdity to figure out what tech is for, it's that part of what we're doing is we're trying to puncture the pomposity of tech companies who really do take themselves all a bit too seriously.

Samuel Arbesman:
There's also... There's the tongue in cheek quote from Alan Kay of what is technology. It's like, "Anything that was invented after you were born," and so... Which goes to the point of what you were saying is like, when things are finished or they're part of the world that we were born into... I mean, because like... Pencils and pens are technologies. Those feel very finished or sanctified by time. Versus all the things that we have now, many companies try to ensure that we are taking them seriously. But they're all so new and that's okay to just recognize they're messy and imperfect and we shouldn't hallow them quite in the same way. I think that the Douglas Adams vibe is the way of making it clear that this stuff is all new and weird and imperfect and that's not only fine, but that's the way it's always going to be when it's new.

Danny Crichton:
I will say... I'll add my own comment. I do think what Sam and you are both getting at is the idea of the research lab demo graduate students presenting fun hacks that they're doing in the lab versus the commercial capitalistic, "I've got to demonstrate a product that is excellent that you're going to buy." I have to prove... I'm launching the iPhone, that has to be this magical fever dream moment. As opposed to, "Look, we put it together. We don't really know how it works. The store doesn't work. We don't even have an App Store. There's no API to use this." It's really not ready for primetime, so to speak. Maybe we just saw that with the Apple Vision Pro. I mean, I think what's interesting is just this year we saw this massive launch and I would say it's successful of a sort. Early on, it was clear that the product is not at the end point. It is a demo. It's just a really expensive demo for folks, both for the consumer and for Apple's research R&D budget.

Matt Webb:
I made my first iPhone app about three weeks ago. I've never made an app before. And I made it because in Robin Sloan's words, "An app can be a home-cooked meal." I made it for me and three or four other people. It's gone wild on the app store, this thing. I've been... It's an arrow that points to the center of the galaxy and that's all it does, Galactic Compass.

Danny Crichton:
I think one of the most interesting things about AI is it feels like the first time we got a new paint brush, right? Because so much of modern tech is closed garden, doesn't allow for fun play. But we've seen among children, in particular, Roblox, Minecraft, these platforms that are designed for building. To actually go in and say, "Look, you have a sketch pad. Go do whatever you want." It's amazing when you give that natural variety across millions of people, the innovation and invention that comes out of that.
To me, it gets up to this point that you were mentioning about classical computing is all about adding up the numbers correctly. So much about computing is about utility and delivering a product that works for a very specific function, "I'm going to replace the HR department or the accounting department with a better tool." Now, I think we have something that actually increases human expression. Whether that's because it isn't precise, and so it just fights with us, that actually juices us to have that creative direction.
Or because as you just pointed out, you had an app idea, no one really was interested in it. Obviously, I don't think a compass to the center of the galaxy is going to be the next billion dollar unicorn. But maybe, I lack imagination. But it is an amazingly fun tool. It's actually quite cool to be able to use-

Samuel Arbesman:
Yeah. That's amazing.

Danny Crichton:
All the sensors in your phone to be able to go do this. We didn't have the ability to do that 15 years ago. Clearly, we are a part of a larger group of people who are downloading that app. And so, suddenly, you had that access. And so, I feel like it's like hackerspaces for hardware is what AI is doing for software and the ability to create digital products. It lowers the bar and it says, "You don't have to raise money. You don't have to find a team. You don't have to do all this infrastructure just to be creative." You can be a solo entrepreneur, so to speak. Entrepreneur in the creative sense, in the way that as a writer, I get to just write and I don't need to collaborate with anyone. I can just go. But then if I want to build an app, I'm like, "Oh, I got to have a designer. I got to have a backend engineer, a frontend engineer. Now, it's like a serious project in a way that sketching is not."

Matt Webb:
It feels like a really exciting shift, doesn't it? The idea of being able to do everything yourself all at once. Sometimes you don't necessarily need to be the best at something. But if you can do a whole range of things in a tolerable fashion, something happens from the synthesis between those. There's an incredible paper that Ethan Mollick was involved in. I can't remember exactly the team but it was about the... It was looking at people in, I think, management consulting group using AI and did it genuinely make their work better. The two takeaways were like, one, yes it did, but the second is that disproportionately helped the folks on the left of the bell curve. So it was dragging people up to average. I think when I look at myself, I'm not a single skilled individual. None of us are. We have multiple skills and I'm good at some and not so great at the others. Now on those others, AI is helping drag me up to the middle.

Samuel Arbesman:
Like this dream of end-user programming or democratization of... This kind of creative leveling of allowing anyone to... This has been a dream for decades and we've been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time and trying to build software. And we now have, to a certain degree, not cracked it but we have a really clear window into actually building this kind of thing. It allows not just the creation of entrepreneurs building something that could then scale.
But it's also just the whimsical kinds of things that if that part of your brain was unlocked, all the ideas of like, "Oh, I wish I had this little thing." But if you can't code, you can't do it. And now, we actually have that ability. And so, it's not only opening up all the commercial and serious things, but all just the weird little things that kids want to build for themselves or people want to build for their kids or whatever it is.
I feel like it was actually going back to the Douglas Adams component. That I think Douglas Adams was the first person to buy a Macintosh in all of Europe. And I feel like if you buy into the Apple Macintosh mythology of it was a computer for everyone and this democratizing influence, he got that. There was this very clear connection between whimsy and absurdity and democratization of computing and all these different kinds of things that came together in the form of Douglas Adams which is exciting.

Danny Crichton:
Let me ask you. You said in your original blog post that we started out the episode with, that the vibe shift, A, is one of the most important concepts you've heard about recently and you felt that there was more academic research needed on this concept. I mean, what you just described to me seems like technology diffusion. Which is this idea of William Gibson's quote, "The future is already here - it's just not equally distributed." Well, some people have the future in their heads, they're using, Co-pilot when they're coding. They were already 10x, 15x faster. As you said, they're 10 years into the future in terms of compute.
And so, there's just a complete dichotomy between these two folks. There's folks who are living in the future and folks who are living "in the past". What do you think about the use of this phrase? Because I've noticed it's come up very heavily in the last two, three years, heavily driven by social media. And a lot of it's, I would call, political vibe shifts as opposed to technology vibe shifts. But on the technology side, do you think it's a good tool as a framework for understanding technological change, this concept of vibe shift?

Matt Webb:
Yeah. I think the framing of vibe is one of the most important concepts that have come around 2020s because it lets us talk about something without fully understanding what it is. Is that there is a feel of things, it is recognizable from human to human, even if we can't put our finger on it. Being able to talk about that is really important. It's a bit like other ideas in sociology or anthropology like Tapu or mana or something like that. They put our finger on there is some kind of force in the universe, even if we can't give it a rationalist explanation at the moment.
This goes for vibe shift as well. So the vibe shift is something which is you are either part of it, you are not. We don't quite know how to put our finger on it, but we can be left behind. This is what makes it different for me, just from technological diffusion on its own. Which is, what does it feel like to be in the middle of technological diffusion?
What it felt like in the Web 2.0 days was you would recognize people in a way which was impossible to fake. It's a combination of language. It's what Dawkins would call green beards. You would have a particular way of dressing or a particular way of speaking or a particular way of using palettes. Those color palettes, the kind of things where if you were in the enterprise world, you would not be seen dead having that kind of dressing. Which means if you do, it is impossible to fake that. The other side of that is looking at people on the new side of the vibe shift going, "I need to be over there," and not being able to make it. That's a terrifying moment as well. So maybe vibe shift lets us talk about technology diffusion from the inside and it liberates us from having to be completely serious the whole time.

Danny Crichton:
Well, Matt Webb, the author of Interconnected Blog, multi-decade product inventor and designer, and who's currently selling Poem/1 and the Galactic Compass. Well, I guess not selling. Poem/1 was a Kickstarter, Galactic Compass is on the App Store, but a fun set of inventions. I'm looking forward to everything you build in the future. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

Matt Webb:
Thank you so much for having me.

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