The sound and the fury of asinine automated tannoy announcements
19 April 2024 | 4:02 pm

Today I’m allowing myself to be a pedantic nit-picker. Really embracing that side of me.

And I’m wondering how to push back against mundane nits, even though I’m aware that it makes me sound like I’m over-sensitive and focusing on the wrong things.

Because the tiny things really do matter, and I’m reminded of that because I’ve spied at least one mechanism where a small change has a larger cultural impact.

The example is in social media…

"What is happening?!" – that’s the prompt that X/Twitter gives you in the post input field.

"What’s on your mind, Matt?" – that’s what Facebook says to me.

This is some kind of manifestation of brand, I had imagined. I hadn’t thought about it very much. I guess the wording has an effect what the social network is like, but I wouldn’t have given that much weight.

EXCEPT: the “nudge” acts strongly with neurodiverse people.

Here’s a paper about it (detailed ref below):

[Our Autistic young adult participants] interpreted feature descriptions such as “people you may know,” “what’s happening?,” “what’s on your mind?,” and “write a comment,” as a direct statement to themselves to act upon.

That UI microcopy that I parse as at-best lightly encouraging me to behave in a particular way is treated by at least some people as a strong instruction.


we observed that young Autistic adults took prompts to share information at face value and followed these suggestions as directives. For example, Participant3 explains the reason for sharing her contact information on her profile: “I had to do that because when I made my account it said phone number or email.”

This is so illuminating to me.


Page, X., Capener, A., Cullen, S., Wang, T., Garfield, M., & J. Wisniewski, P. (2022). Perceiving Affordances Differently: The Unintended Consequences When Young Autistic Adults Engage with Social Media. Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1-21.

Let me extrapolate.

  • Prevalence of Autistic adults in the US: 2 percent. (Apologies for the reference to “disorder” on that page; I wanted to link to the stat but I disagree with the frame.)
  • McKinsey. Minimum number of employees to involve for a successful business transformation project: 7 percent.

So hand-waving a bit here, 2% of a social app’s audience taking user interface copy literally is a good way toward having actual cultural change. You get a bunch more via mimesis, a bunch via algo nudges, and so on. But neurodiverse people get you a quarter of the way there!

I had PREVIOUSLY imagined that culture changes because EVERYONE shifts behaviour a LITTLE.

But NOW I see a mechanism whereby a VERY SMALL cohort changes their behaviour ABSOLUTELY and perhaps that drags along the rest.

Which seems plausible?

Anyway, I would love to understand more how/whether neurodiverse people have a critical role as a cultural vector, online and elsewhere, disproportionate to population.

Thinking like this has made me appreciate, even more, that apparently innocuously choices MATTER culturally, even when I can’t imagine the actual mechanism.

So I’ll go into two such apparently innocuous examples

Here are two incidences with signage that I spotted on my travels in the last few days.

London Bridge

At London Bridge station this morning, an automated announcement over the tannoy: "Due to weather conditions the surfaces around the station may be slippery."

I mean… yes? It’s raining a little? So… of course??

It is fascinating to contemplate the complex of considerations and sign-offs that brought this automated announcement into existence and maintain it.

I can’t imagine it stops people slipping over. And I can’t imagine it would function as a protective shield in court against negligence.

I can imagine, on the other hand, how it came into being! Somebody is trying to be nice or helpful, and nobody has an argument against adding the announcement to the roster. Or it’s a health & safety thing, an individual being extra keen, or maybe it’s aimed at staff (not travellers), but there was no lawyer in the room to say “nah that’s actually not a functional defence.”

But. To my mind, the automated tannoy announcement is corrosive:

  • Situationally: it reduces the signal to noise ratio of announcements and stops me listening to all announcements, even useful ones
  • Societally: it subtly reduces my individual level of responsibility by letting me disclaim any accident as “well, I wasn’t told.”

Society, in this case, becomes an diffuse helicopter parent.

Gatwick Airport

There are some gorgeous, huge, bright screens in Gatwick Airport now, used for way-finding and (of course) ads. You can barely tell they’re screens.

In fact these screens fulfil the function of regular static signs, and have displaced those old signs: there’s a big yellow block that says “Toilets.”

Some of the time.

A minute later, that part of the large screen changes its display mode and tells you what gates are in that direction instead.

The thing is… you can’t, on first glance, tell that these screens are screens. They do not have the visual affordance of changing over time. They are not dimmer than standard static surfaces; they have no flicker. The pixels are not visible.

So I unconsciously note that there is a sign that tells me where the toilets are, without memorising the arrow. My cognition is environmental; my extended mind extends to the sign. I look again, now wanting to know the direction… but the sign has changed.

I am confused. Was I wrong to look there for direction?

This all happens below my immediate consciousness. I am gaslit by the signage. By my own mind! By the sign’s appearance, it had informed me that it is not a changing screen. I must be mistaken.

My extental reality, I absorb just very slightly, just at 0.1% intensity, my external reality is not to be trusted.

I am aware that, in bringing up these two examples, I am an old man yelling at a cloud.

I am gesturing at what appear to be such diffuse effects, homoeopathically tiny nudges on culture:

  • That I do not bear individual responsibility for my own well-being, beginning with not being trusted to look after my own feet in the rain.
  • That I cannot trust my perceptions of my physical surroundings, beginning with an ostensibly helpful sign duping me and denying its nature.

It is challenging to belief this even matters?


My note from the microcopy-to-culture story is that it is worth caring about these things because even if I cannot identify the mechanism right now, large cultural effects from tiny acorns grow.

These examples are, indeed, how culture is enacted and propagated.

So I wonder what the counter-action could be, if I feel so strongly about the potential effects?

How can I persuade people to remove the meaningless announcements, to return meaning to signs? Short of enrolling a mob of enraged semioticians to take matters into their own hands.

To illuminate and persuade, we need new instruments to measure diffuse nudges on culture.

That sounds abstract. Yet, in the marketing world, something like Net promoter score (NPS) (Wikipedia) does exactly that.

If you’ve ever been asked whether you would recommend a product or service to a friend, know that your answer will pass through a standard and simple algorithm, and be pored over by product managers every 30 days.

The existence of NPS is so potent in bringing about a certain type of behaviour.

If there were a number to easily measure some abstract social metric - entrepreneurship, feeling of individual agency, contentment - and then show how it is eroded by the theatre of announcements that say “be careful walking, it’s for your own good”…


that would be an awfully technocratic “solution”.

And probably not work, really.


It doesn’t need to work, really. It doesn’t need to be true.

I just need some mechanism.

Some plausible mechanism to get into the heads of policy-makers and managers.

To make the asinine announcements in train stations stop.

Because they may or may not be a cause or a symptom of a certain kind of society, and all of that.

But mainly they drive me loopy.

And I want the robot to stop telling me that it’s raining and therefore I might slip over because for goodness sake.

Being quietly radicalised by being on holiday
12 April 2024 | 4:37 pm

I’m on my hols right now.

Breakfast from the supermarket and bakery, for three people, costs a shade over 7 euros. Two fancy-pants coffees to-go costs a shade over 8 euros.

That seems like the right kind of gearing? Essentials are easily within reach; luxury items you have to think about.

Essentials are like: basic groceries, broadband/phone, roads, education, healthcare, energy, water, rent up to a certain amount etc. “Normal” coffee, house wine, that kind of thing.

It’s very hard to justify, in my head, why these should be the province of profit-seeking companies. Given we all have to have them, why should some people get to leach on that? Yes the profits are taxed but that’s an inefficient way to collect extra money from citizens.

We all form a government which is a kind of enlarged co-operative really. Why don’t we make a basket of essentials, democratically argued about and iterated over time, then nationalise not-for-profits to run supply chains and shops for them?

Just… take essentials out of the for-profit bit of the economy.

Our priorities have lost their way somewhere along the line.

And good for for-profit companies too, right? People without broadband can’t buy from Shein; can’t receive deliveries from Amazon. People without their health, without education can’t staff them. Remove the friction by making essentials work.

Something related I’ve been thinking about is:

What is a company for?

There’s the Coasean definition of the boundaries of the firm – you outsource paperclips when it’s economically more efficient for you to do so, given that outsourcing incurs transaction costs.

But for me that misses purpose.

I saw a post online about someone comparing their own company comprising themself, two contractors, $4m annual revenue and large profits, with another company: same revenue, small profit, many dozens of employees. Implying that their company was better. Higher ROI I suppose.


For me, a company is, at least to a degree, for the people in it. Right?

A company that makes not too much profit but is the collective endeavour of many people is a good company, surely? Or rather, it occupies as many people as it requires and allows those people to enjoy a relaxed life.

Imagine a company staffed by people with enough room in their days to build intuitive skill in their work and show empathy to customers. To be not transactional.

And to take long lunches.

That’s good for them and good for the community the company is part of, right?

An aside:

My second job was as Saturday boy at the local ironmonger’s.

One day we cut the hedge and swept the street. We did it for the neighbour too because, as Eric said, that’s what neighbours do.

On the other hand. My first job was word processing for an actual drug smuggler, no kidding. I didn’t know at the time. He had a cover company. I designed its logo.

We’ve been taking local buses over the last week.

An essential if ever there was one.

They’re cheap here and they run bang on time. They’re not super regular (you consult the timetable). They stop for an hour over lunch.

So going somewhere takes planning, unless you want to pay more and hop on an express. The drivers get a proper break.

That seems… an ideal trade off?

People aren’t super wealthy, as far as I can tell, or at least it’s not as ostentatious as London. Admittedly it would be hard to have the extremes of London, and I’m in a town and not a global financial and cultural centre. Even so.

Also people aren’t overweight so far as I’ve seen.

Partially that’s the sunshine and the quality of the produce, I’m sure.

Partially… well, I don’t see much need for Ozempic, looking around. The miracle weight reduction drug, and also generalised impulse dampener, is papering over something, cracks that aren’t apparent here.

It’s hard not to see it all related: the cost of living, how helpful and unharried people are in shops, the buses and the lunch breaks, the lack of wealth and health extremes.

The convivial life is a natural semaglutide demand inhibitor?

So we miss something, I think, in conversations about working hard for early retirement and then living the good life.

Like – why not both.

Come to Europe and get low-key radicalised haha

The EU may (or may not) be making technology policy missteps, but they are gently and patiently promoting a certain way of life which feels globally very, very special, and fundamentally counter to the hypercapitalism found elsewhere.

Honestly I’d like to see serious economic papers that compare the two approaches. Why not do it this way? Why not go further and, as I suggested, choose radical nationalised businesses for essentials? Genuinely what is the problem with that? Why isn’t it simply obvious that we should live our lives in comfort, with room to participate and be kind to each other, and knock off early to go to the beach early on sunny days? And that’s not compatible with profit-extracting water suppliers etc, and shops run by people not just on minimum wage but without any kind of employment protection?

Why can’t politicians propose these kind of ideas, even as a generational directional plan rather than an election promise, without getting yelled at?

That’s holidays for you I suppose. These feelings will evaporate with my tan as I’m back in my esoteric work bubble, back home. A day dream.

It shouldn’t be a dream.

Driving at night
5 April 2024 | 11:56 am

I was driving in the dark last week and listening to the whole Twin Peaks soundtrack (Wikipedia).

Wife napping. Kid asleep in the back. No road lighting, no Moon.

On YouTube: Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks theme. 1990!

It holds up, it holds up.

Also on YouTube: Angelo Badalamenti explains how he wrote Laura Palmer’s theme - so beautiful, do please watch this, you have to hear him play and narrate how he worked with David Lynch.

For ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme,’ he described a lonely girl coming from out in the woods, and the sycamore trees calmly blowing in the wind, and then make me start on a melody. He would always speak very softly in my ear, and I would play something the whole time while he was speaking. Oh, Angelo, we’re in the dark woods, that’s good, that’s good. Play it slower. De-da-de-da-de-da. Play it slower, okay. Angelo, yeah, that’s good, you slowed up, but play it slower.

So you see it fits very well.

Taillights and headlights and dreamy haunting jazz.

Such a vibe, you know?

There are a few albums that work best, driving in the dark. Dummy (1994) by Portishead is one.

The Dead Texan.

Literally anything by Cliff Martinez, the Solaris soundtrack for instance.

Which of course takes me to my favourite TV ad of all time which is Night Driving (Ad Forum; watch the 90 second spot there) for VW Golf by adam&eveDDB. Cliff Martinez, the dark empty streets of LA, and Under Milkwood read by Dylan Thomas.

It’s such an eternal cognitive location, night driving.

Different thoughts come when you access that state.

Like writing PowerPoint in hotel lobbies.

I talked about this! Three feelings that I don’t have words for (2020).

Number #3: "Hotel lobbies always feel the same to me. The exotic, and melancholy."

The hotel lobby exists outside time. In that place, I’m 28, I’m 42, I’m all ages in-between. I feel like, sitting there in 2012, I could probably remember the future yesterday of 2016 …


This moment of communion is also picked up on by Borges, as previously discussed (2012), not just breaking the barrier of time but also the barrier of individuality:

"All men who repeat a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare."

I think you access something other and special when you escape time, escape selfhood, whether that’s driving in the dark or sitting in a hotel lobby or walking, that’s another one.

It does a disservice to this cognitive state to believe that it can be found only with psychedelics or meditation or whatever, whereas there are mundane apertures too,

and we do a disservice to alternative cognitive states to choose to name “flow,” simply because it relates to productivity, and to leave nameless this mode of becoming diffuse and sensitive, able to sense resonances and new ideas from species memory and from the future, and from there, pluck them, and return home with them.

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