No good deed

Really ruining the fun for everyone.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed these emails are now coming via Substack, instead of TinyLetter.

I’m grateful to the latter for getting this little project started, but Substack is a much better mug for me. The visual editor is really straightforward and the code doesn’t look like it was written in Dreamweaver. I also find some of the little perks really satisfying: like being able to edit old emails, and a more convenient archive page. The one thing I miss: TinyLetter’s wordcount feature.

(There are also a lot of new subscribers, which is very gratifying. Howdy.)

Citymapper have launched a London “Super Pass” that’s cheaper than it’s Oyster counterpart. In peak 2019ness, they’ve explained their vision on Medium:

We believe ease of ticketing is essential for public transport to compete with private players, and this is important for the future of congested and complex cities.

On one hand, this is a lovely use of technology, and, somehow (magic?) TfL still get their share, so I’m not fussed about nasty long-term impact of money disappearing from the public coffers.

On the other hand, the “London” pass only covers Zones 1-2. If you (generously) interpret that as inner vs outer London, that means the pass is available to less than half (closer to a third) of London’s residential population, and a quarter of its area. Inner London is also better served by transport already - including the public bikes and largely more accessible (in every definition, but including basic ‘walkability’).

The “Super Pass” isn’t a bad idea - it is, in fact, a pretty good one. But it won’t reduce traffic, or pollution, or make the facilities of “London” (central London) any more accessible to the majority of Londoners (greater, or ‘actual’, London). When considering the socio-economic profiles of Inner and Outer boroughs, I’d much rather see the discount go to someone in Redbridge than Westminster. Access to transportation is critical for mental health, economic progress and social mobility. “Super Pass” is a lovely thing, but it stops short of meaningful impact, especially when contrasted with, say, the “hopper” fare. Great for tourists though.

This is all part of the greater conversation on the ethical use of technology. Unless you’re being deliberately dense, you’ve probably cottoned on to the fact that computers can, indeed, have biases. Technology only does what we ask it to do, and sometimes we don’t ask it the right - or fullest - questions.

Similarly, systems design can function the same way. Even with the best intentions, offering transport discounts (to Zone 1-2), free courses (to those at university), professional advice (to those who can pay £60 to attend a course in Central London in the middle of a workday)… can wind up reinforcing the same issues that they are meant to combat. Or creating another set of issues entirely.

I’ve written in the past about “wicked problems”. Another challenge of the wicked problem is that - in a Heisenbergery kind of way - they are impacted by the attempt to address them. That’s another reason we have to be especially careful. Pilot schemes aren't ‘sandboxes’; they take place in the real world.

The great Drew Magary on the marketing of ‘passion’:

The single stupidest comment to make online about something—and there is no shortage of choices—is “meh.” Proudly displaying your LACK of passion about something is basically announcing to the world that you’re an uninteresting person. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Why don’t you go sit and do crossword puzzles silently until you die? Why bother living if you’re not gonna care about shit either way? Passion is vital, which is why it sucks that techy dingbats have taken the concept and mutilated it into a disposable bit of self-branding.

The link - a discussion of the evils of ‘meh’ - is worth reading.

Magary arrived at this point in his typical round-about way, but he’s actually answering a reader question about using the phrase “to have a passion for”.

What he is illustrating the basic principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ - which is as true in marketing as it is in fiction. There are are certain… let’s call them “values”… that are undermined by the simple act of self-assigning them.

Again, there’s a wee bit of Heisenberg about this. There’s nothing, for example, as inherently untrustworthy as saying “trust me”. “Integrity”, “honesty”, “trust”, “transparency”… are in the same boat. They’re not simply better by being shown, but telling is counter-productive. I think this elevates them beyond another tier of values - “efficiency”, “ease”, even “value” - where telling is a more neutral act.

Is it because the former category are more subjective, or simply more personal? Or are they more emotional? Ease is a practical, rational concern. Honesty is, functionally- speaking, meaningless, but psychologically critical. (Interestingly, if you had to choose between an honest brand or an easy to use one, which would you choose? Would that matter depending on the sector? What if it were your bank? Your doctor? Your waiter?)

Whether it is ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘practice what you preach’ or, whatever, it is simply the common sense that underpins virtually every approach to strategic communications. As importantly, ‘show, don’t tell’ also informs the limits of those communications: what happens when you say something you aren’t doing? Or stop doing what you are saying?

The big downer here: there can be harm in trying. Don’t claim what you can’t prove. Because it won’t simply fail, it’ll undermine your future attempts at success.

Get: Problem-solvers
To: Consider the cost of failure
By: Reminding them that nothing takes place in a vaccuum

Not to brag, but I was once a guest, on a podcast even, with Drew. My contribution - which was recorded at 4 am GMT - was mostly fawning. It is not my finest hour (or 42 minutes). Mostly I’m just confused about Chopped.

Further reading:

Last night was the second ‘launch’ of The Outcast Hours, at the beautiful Brick Lane Books, at 7 pm. Guests included Frances Hardinge, Karen Onojaife, Maha Khan Phillips, Will Hill and, everyone’s favourite: wine. Being a book about cities at night, having an East London event felt rather necessary, and the bookstore is one of my favourites. I’m not sure who does their buying, but all their books are really, really pretty, and it was nice to see Outcast hanging out in their company.

For the collector, it means that there are now signed copies at two different shops, with two different sets of signatures. Good luck with that.

The immediate Outcast events are all done, so… enjoy the silence. If you’re interested in a book, or simply hot takes, about ‘the people who live at night’ - get in touch. I know a few dozen authors I can recommend.