An Experimental Audio-Visual Quest
This year 2020, I made a series of 3 x 50 minute documentary films about our world of technology and society — called Bigger, Faster, Smarter. It’s a three-part film quest that takes viewers on a journey through the real world, with an eye on technology and the science behind it. It asks a simple question: How is it that we’re so good at technology, and yet so poor at human cooperation? Today, many technologists live in a bubble of their own making. In a sense, it’s been my life’s work to prick that bubble. Of course, we need some principles to unpick such an audacious claim. So, through music and imagery, I’ve tried to put a story of how it all came to be into a kind of perspective. And to think about where it might be going.
All the films are flawed in ways that I have to accept. Given different resources and circumstances it could have all been a lot better, but here they are, take them or leave them…
Background for the films
Some years ago, after drawing a line under my travails with the startup company CFEngine that I founded, I met a woman in a bar in San Jose, California. She asked me: “What do you do?’’ In that moment, wielding some makeshift cards for a freelance consulting business I was hoping to establish, I was floored. What do I actually do? I had no idea how to explain it, or where to begin. I do…everything and nothing. And I do it a lot — all the time. I don’t stop. Right? But what was that? I simply gave her my card, and she replied by email the next day, having trawled my website: “You’re a teacher!’’ she said.
I admit to begin a bit taken aback, as I figured I had fled that role at the University for the sake of my mental health some years previously. But after a moment, in which my head spun and I doubted her judgement, a thought crystallized: actually, yes. It’s true. I’ll take it. Teaching is a noble (if not always revered) profession, after all. And — it seemed accurate. A fair cop. No matter how I tried to get away from the label of teacher, and try to push the envelop of science and technology, or contribute to the future of the world, teaching others has become a kind of ball and chain around my leg. One that I wear willingly and enthusiastically.
Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at writing, and with the advances of technology it seemed like time to have a go at film. Today, it’s something you can actually do from your living room. Which is where I did most of the work. No budget to speak of. A few hundred dollars for some stock footage. Everything else is painstakingly handmade. But, I’ve been privileged to be a citizen of the world for many years, and I wanted to share a little of that in the footage, using some of the exotic locations I’ve visited.
I grew up watching the BBC Science Documentaries Horizon and Channel 4's Equinox. Alongside the popular science books, these were my inspiration for becoming a scientist. And while some scientists will always resent popularization (scientists can be the worst snobs), I always found them uplifting and motivational. So, of course, I wanted to try that too.
My first attempt to write popular science was the book In Search of Certainty. It brought initially abuse and disdain from both colleagues and book editors, until Tim O’Reilly discovered an essay I had written about Promise Theory and DevOps, and decided that his publishing company should publish my available works. Over the next 5 years, the book gradually drew a small following, in spite of the occasional hate mail from up-and-coming Googlers and Stanford graduates.
Not one to take a hint, I followed up with another book in 2018 called Smart Spacetime, even bigger and more ambitious than the first. In spite of best efforts, these books always turn out to be too much work and too long for most readers. So maybe a film would be more digestible. Maybe, I can take the topics from those books and get others to tell them in their own words, without my help?
Thanks to the invention of smartphones, and the advice of my sidekick Lynn, who studied film making, I came to realize that it was possible to make some kind of film. Between us, we collected little bits of video on our phones from our extensive travels, and we started to be more mindful of recording cool imagery, with no idea about what to do with it. Yet, with some clips purchasable online, this turns out to take you quite far. And I’ll confess my bottom line. It was an opportunity for me to indulge a hobby of mine. For years, I’ve been a film music enthusiast, and my secondary motivation for making a film was to have something original for which I could write and score the music. Even before science, music was my life. And I have rarely had the opportunity to use music to tell a story in my professional life. The tools of modernity have made us rich in unexpected ways.
From the format of Horizon, I knew that film making was storytelling, and that you needed interviewees — human faces — to connect with. I had no idea what I was doing, or even who might talk to me on the record. I took some of the topics from my popular books and sketched out a rough idea in my head.
As I was summoning the courage and researching the methods, I asked my friend Paul Borrill if we would do a practice interview, to see if the filming was good enough. We tried it out — Paul is naturally charismatic, and it was both great footage and great practice for editing and handling the most difficult part — sound recording and processing. After the attempt, I was busy, and I sat on that footage for a year, not sure who to ask next, or how to meet them, located around the world.
Then came 2020. Just as the pandemic was spreading, we made a last ditch trip to Florida to attend a conference with my friend Daniel Mezick, who appears in the film — another charismatic speaker. Time to try a second interview. After that, every interview had to be done remotely — by video chat, with the generous assistance of extremely trusting interviewees. I became proficient (actually, cheeky) in reaching out to people whom I thought would have an interesting perspective on subjects that could fit. And I got lucky. A few said no, a few said yes. Remarkably, even people I didn’t know well gave me their trust, even as a complete novice. That’s a huge compliment, especially not really knowing what I was doing.
But I knew that, if I could get enough material and the people were engaging, the music would carry the project through. And that part, I felt I could do.
I recorded hours of footage — whatever I could get hold of — and edited it painstakingly to find a storyline from the pretty uncoordinated material. Humbled by the generosity of my subjects, I had to stay true to their words, while twisting them into my own! As I was going through this new footage, I hit upon the idea for the series. There would be three films: 1) The Meaning of Work and Process, 2) Networks and Cooperation, and 3) Smart Technology. I used my book writing strategy: just start and see how it works, then finish. Finishing is simply an effort of will. No guts no glory. So here goes:
Part 1: Smart Spacetime
Part 1 asks: what is work for, how do we define it, and measure it? The unit of work is a process, and processes string together actions as serial streams. We race processes in parallel to multiply the effort and reduce the time. We love to count progress, using clocks and ledgers, but the true meaning of work lies in symbols! In short, the story of work is the story of how we transform spacetime into meaningful stories.
We can view the world on different scales, by zooming in an by zooming out. This is a powerful tool for understanding. It’s the basis of our cognition, and it leads us to see the world differently — from the bottom up, bringing us to networks.
Part 2: The Circuitry of the World
The world of processes that we know as spacetime is about agents cooperating. Without cooperation, there is nothing and no one to see it. Observation and cooperation works by having little loops of process, as a fundamental building block, that busily wait to detect messages from other little loops of process. And, in turn, this cooperation leads to the formation of groups, or collective cohorts of agents, with boundaries defined by their names and labels — what we call namespaces. These symbolic labels are the generalization of good old-fashioned coordinates we learn in school. And it’s this symbolic interpretation that gives meaning to mere information, too much of which becomes simply a white-out of noise.
The great revelation of the 20th century is that the world is made up of networks — grand patterns of interactions on multiple scales. The world is a giant circuit that connects flows of people, goods, and service and shapes it into what we see around us — like a giant computer. But, what is it computing? Are we sure we’ll like the answer?
Part 3: Human-Cyborg Relations
In the final episode, I try to put humanity’s penchant for exploration and creativity into perspective. What are we trying to achieve as a species? Is technology a tool or part of who we are? Are humans for or against nature?
In our unbridled haste to impress a vision of the future, whose main vision has become about wealth, we’ve not always paid attention to the side effects on people and things that keep us afloat. Branding inventions as ‘smart’ might be all the rage, but are we smart or are we smarting from the blowback? Agile or stubborn?
Finally, hindsight of a zero budget production
The making of these films was a learning experience in many ways. I did the best I could with what I had, but it was the guests who made it what it is. It was quite a learning experience — always satisfying to create and tell a story. For my part, I fulfilled by goal of scoring the films with a common theme unfolding across the three episodes. If you like music, you can listen here.
With hindsight, I was probably too impatient to finish the final part and I’m not really happy with my own performance in narrating and editing the material. The music could have been a lot better too…but I had to move on to other things. I had a project starting and wanted to draw a line under this. Part 3 is not as tight as it should have been — but it depends on the mood. If you can relax into it, it’s not so bad. If you’re impatient for the punchline, then it could be tedious.
I do get a fair bit of criticism about the excessive depth of the stories I try to tell. Mark, why can’t you just make it simple for a change? I always think I’m doing that, but I am what I am, for better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Today, it’s hard to get anyone (especially in tech) to watch anything longer than 2–3 minutes. No matter. I’m doing it anyway. I’m not making it for you, I’m making it for me. I have to try these things…
I hope that the films will, at least, give food for thought for some time to come. And if they inspire a younger or older audience to boldly go where they never dared before, then my indulgence has served a wider purpose. If not, then the indulgence was mine.
In summary, I simply wish everyone a better 2021 and beyond, and I hope you enjoy these films. Be well.