Friday, November 30, 2007

Not Sure How to Feel About This…

About a week ago I had an experience that I still don’t know how to respond to. I was looking through headlines as I often do (thank you Google personal homepage) when I came across a news article of somewhat personal interest. The article was a brief business piece about a small company with a somewhat unique and specialized business model that is apparently doing quite well.

The kicker for me is this: Many years ago (pre-Summer even) Fireheart and I had pretty much the same idea for a business based around providing the same design and custom modification service to the same specific clientele as the business profiled by CNN. I’m not going to go into details about what this business is/was because it is irrelevant to my point and I am uninterested in debating the merits of said business. There were a number of reasons that we did not pursue our idea, some were financial, some technical, and some were based on negative feedback we got from people we ran the idea by.

In truth, I do not think that the market was ready for this idea back then (which accounts for some of the negative feedback mentioned above), and I believe that the people who are running the business profiled on CNN are probably better suited to this particular line of work then we were. All that said, here is my internal debate:

Perspective #1

Be pissed off. Not with the people making this work, huzzah for them. Rather I could be pissed at myself and Fire for not pursuing what was clearly a good idea after all. As a designer I feel an attachment to my ideas and designs, event the ones that went no where. This experience is a bit like debating buying a scratch ticket but eventually choosing not to, only to have the person behind you on line strike it big (with the caveat that buying a scratch ticket is easy and making a good design idea into a successful business is one of the harder things that a person can set out to do).

Perspective #2 (the healthier one)

I can take this as a vindication of my (and Fire’s) intuition as a designer. An idea that I had (though clearly we weren’t the only ones) is now a successful business model. Granted it is someone else’s business, but I had the idea too, and now it is working. In a removed way (as in, I didn’t do any work at all) I can be a bit proud of these other peoples’ success. I’d like to be able to gain a measure of confidence from this experience. At the same time, when I look over our current proposed project list I want to do everything in my power as Project Manager (yes my actual title) to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

The truth is that I feel both of these things. I wonder, if Fire and I had taken a different road, would our names now be up on CNN? Or were we right to pass on this idea because it just wasn’t the right one for us? Just because these people succeeded in no way guarantees that we would have.

Lastly, I just want to clarify incase I haven’t been adequately clear: I DO NOT think that these people somehow “stole” my and Fireheart’s idea. It was a good idea, and I imagine that many people other than us had it. The difference, as with all successful design is that these people took thought to action and for that I wish them only the best success.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

My Mistress… Nüvi?

On my way down to New Jersey last month I found myself entered into my first rigid D/S relationship. Now, as readers of BarkingShaman know, BDSM is a major part of both my sexual and spiritual lives. However, given that I am already the Boss’ bitch, it would be hard for me to enter into a submissive relationship with anyone else. Yet here it was. She speaks with a British accent and I do whatever she tells me to. Her name is… Garmin Nüvi Model 200. Actually she can speak with an American accent too but the British is way better.

I suppose I should explain. The Garmin Nüvi is a GPS based navigational unit. You program it with where you want to go and it creates a route and directs you along it. My mistress is a lower end model (she was quite on sale) so she gives instructions (“In point seven miles, turn right, then keep left”) but doesn’t give street names out loud. I just like to think of her as giving me some measure of independence.

I realize that I am being glib, but in truth the experience of using the navigational unit is extremely strange. We tend to want to think of ourselves as masters of our own domain, pilots in our own spaceship if you will. To some extent, the navigational unit changes that. This is especially true when you start using one; doubly so if you are as bad with, and stressed by, following directions as I am.

Intellectually I can understand that making turns when the sultry British woman tells me to is little different than following the print out from Google Maps. However, there is an emotionally qualitative difference. If I am busy listening to Lost Men, the Story of Shackelton’s Ross Sea Party on audio book and I forget to check my directions printout, well I’m screwed. The Nüvi won’t let that happen though. She’ll interrupt and give her directions whether I want them or not. If I miss my turn anyway, she’ll rebuild my route to get me to my destination despite the error of my ways. Although I could swear that the way she says “recalculating” has a bit of an accusatory air about it.

What this means is that rather than the pilot of my own spaceship, I am now more like a co-pilot. Perhaps a better analogy is that of a tank driver. The tank commander tells the driver where to go, and he does. He isn’t directing the tank; he is just the interface system between the commander and the tank itself. I believe that if the Nüvi could just take my little Subaru over and drive it to Edison, NJ herself then she would. Since she can’t, I become the interface between the computer and the car.

I should clarify that I certainly don’t always feel this way. When I am going somewhere I am even somewhat familiar with I tend to treat the navigational unit’s input as a strong suggestion. Choosing the road that I prefer leads to a feeling of “that’s right bitch, you will recalculate my route, because we’re taking this road whether you like it or not,” rather than feelings of being taken to task for failure.

Where I take the role of the submissive interface system is when I am in territory that is totally alien to me. I remember stopping on my way to New Jersey at a rest stop and looking at the map next to the bathroom to figure out where the hell I was. Not in a progress sort of way, but in the more literal sense of “where is this road in the world?” (running parallel to I95 btw)

The scary thing was, if the unit had suffered some form of critical system failure, I fear I would have panicked. I cannot be sure of that. I like to think that I would have driven until I found a rest stop and bought a good old fashioned map of the state that I was in (I am never thrilled with the 50 state road atlas that I always keep in the car). More likely I would have called Fire or Summer or someone else I could expect to be near a computer and asked them to direct me to my destination. I also had Google Map directions, but the Nüvi had chosen a significantly different course from Google so I can’t be sure how useful that would have proven.

All of this has led me around to the question of whether computers will be replacing us. Frankly, if my role in the transportation relationship is primarily that of the interface between the Garmin Nüvi 200 and the Subaru Forester, then I can be replaced, maybe not yet, but not too long from now. However, the important thing is that I had a reason to be going to NJ, and the Nüvi didn’t. Specifically, I was driving from New Hampshire to New Jersey to take care of someone close to me who had had major surgery. It is this kind of motivation that I think it will take a lot longer for computers to come around to.

There are people who worry, including me sometimes, that becoming more integrated in our lives with our machines will make us less human. I think that it could free us up to spend more time on our humanity. I enjoy driving a car, but if I could tell the Nüvi to take the wheel (as she so clearly wants to do) what could I do with that time instead? Maybe someday I’ll be able to replace this mistress with her great granddaughter and find out.