Not OK, Google. My photos aren’t clutter.

Many of Google’s initiatives around ML and AI-augmented creativity are wonderful (more on that in another post). But even the best and brightest tech can struggle to make a good impression if it presents itself in a way that is lacking in social skills.   And that’s the flavour I got from the  conversation Google Photos just tried to have with me.  Google Photos was trying very hard to show how clever it was, and how it was working diligently to please me, but it only succeeded in being annoying.    (We’ve all been there.)

The more Google personifies itself in its self-presentation to its consumer user base, the more we expect of it – for better or worse.  One doesn’t really expect an empty search box to have a lot of personality: all the magic is hidden behind the fourth wall of the screen.  But when Google becomes an “I” and initiates dialog with me, I start to expect more than it has yet learned how deliver.

What happened? Well, it came to pass that after a period of absence, I needed to interact with Google Photos via my desktop. So I did. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but the following pile of notifications:

Google Photos notification

Google Photos’ off key notifications

What’s not to like?

The first notification just missed the mark.   That’s ok.   ‘Rediscover this day’ invites me to engage with Google Photos as a place to hang out and retrospect.   This is unlikely to succeed in the short term – but I don’t mind being asked.

It’s the next three notifications where the potential for harmony in our possible conversation seemed to totally evaporate:

  • Notifications 2 and 3  offer me the chance to look at stylised photos and collages – it tells me that it has done stuff I don’t really want, when I wasn’t looking, and now it wants to take time out of my day to show it to me
  • In Notification 4 it offers me the chance to clear my clutter – Google insults my own images… and offers to get rid of them for me.

There are reasons why each of these conversation-opening gambits is problematic.   On the upside, in combination they manage to be quite funny.

Is it art if nobody’s looking?

The ‘look mum!’ notifications – offering me a  collage and a ‘stylised photo’ – remind me of  when my kid was in infant school.   Every other day, something unasked for in the way of ‘art’ would come back from the school.  Our fridge quickly got covered with ‘art’.

This didn’t make anybody happy.   The kid dislikes art and didn’t much like having to take time out from better things, in order to do it.   For my part, I didn’t like having the ‘art’ on the fridge.  The fridge is where I put my own stuff that I don’t quite know what to do with.  Fortunately, my lovely childminder tipped me the wink that the right way to politely dispose of children’s ‘art’ was to take a digital photo of it.


Which brings us nicely back round to Google’s ‘look mum!’ conversation starter about its collages and stuff.  It’s stuff I didn’t remember asking for, that I don’t want.

Mind you, Google did not actually ask me to print out its work and put it on the fridge.  Small blessing.  Like my kid, pretty much all it wanted was my attention.

It’s kind of poignant really.   There is no schoolbag.  There is no fridge.   There is no conversation platform at all, really,  except for the notifications channel, which I wasn’t usually seeing because I wasn’t ever hanging out in Google Photos, just using it as a service via API, with my interactions being driven by other apps.

So Google seems to have been busy doing this art thing for me silently all these years, but has had no way of telling me about it.  Frustrating!   That makes it all the more important that the conversation openers it uses in Notifications really work for me:  they offer the chance for us to engage directly, not mediated by another platform.

Magic vs meddling

I remember going to I/O extended many years ago and listening to a bunch of announcements on my interaction-isolating headset about upcoming enhancements to Photos, whereby which Google would do enhancements on my photos in Photos, if I uploaded them.   Doing art behind my back when I’m not looking is a progression from this.  Way back then, Google had total confidence that it was doing something I would really value.   I found this mystifying at the time – and I still do.   But I know I’m hypocritical about this – and the root causes of my hypocrisy are interesting.

The thing is,  I don’t really mind my totally obvious glaring faults being automagically corrected.   Who wants red-eye?  (Unless of course the picture actually is of a red-eyed monster – but that’s an edge case I am happy to throw overboard.)   I generally accept that Photoshop’s suggestions about sharpening and  level tweaking are spot on.    I think that I draw the line at automagic cropping of my images – but I really don’t.  I actually appreciate Facebook’s increasing subtleties about knowing how to display uploaded photos so their points of interest are visible and the composition is balanced.

And here’s more seeming hypocrisy, in case – unlike me – you’re in short supply:   I love love love my Pixel 2.   Which works tirelessly near-instantly and invisibly to correct whatever faults in the universe and in myself might result in a less than satisfactory image.   It just works.  It’s like putting rose-tinted glasses on my photography ability.    And I don’t mind one bit.

So why does Google Photos’ unwanted fridge art annoy me – but I love that my Pixel 2 makes me better than I really am?   Both Photos and the Pixel 2 have similar collaboration models:  the cleverness applied to my images happens without a lot of explicit interaction or negotiation about it.  In one case, that’s fine.  In the other, not so much.   Why?

I think there are two interesting ways in which the Photos case is different:

  • timing – with Photos there is a lag between my initial act of creation, and Photos’ contribution towards our collaboration
  • process and outcome – with Photos, what is being offered is creative collaboration, rather than a productivity enhancement, but I am not sure what I get out of it if I am not actually involved in it

Timing influences our perception of causality

The fact that the Pixel 2’s assistance occurs near-instantaneously makes it seems more integrated:  that’s basically just what it does.   Its rose-tinted glasses seem to be always on.   By contrast, the lag on the Photos enhancement processing and art creation introduces a feeling of separation, almost alienation between the action and the outcome.

Lag used to be normal.  Back in the days, if you wanted to have photos you’d have to drop your film off for processing, and in due course pick them up again in the form of physical prints and developed negatives.  Even if you did your own processing, this was something that took time.  But in this age of instant, it’s unusual.

Productivity and creativity augmentation need different collaboration protocols

I think of instant and automatic corrections and enhancements as a kind of productivity enhancement.   A kind of spell-checker,  or tax form filler.   (By the way, thanks for that tax form reform thing HMRC.  It’s beautiful.)

The kind of augmentation that I want for a productivity task is something that frees me up from my own errors and limitations.   I don’t necessarily want to have a conversation about it – though I might want to be asked to validate choices that the productivity agent isn’t sure about.

However,  I have different needs and expectations about the type of collaboration model and conversation that works for creative applications (as I will be explaining in another post).    The type of collaboration I have with Google Photos about our mutually produced artwork is a strange one.

I am not sure what inspires Google Photos to produce fridge art for me. When does it do it?  Which assets does it choose to do it to?   Who knows?  So when it appears, it appears as if disconnected from any sense of collaborative engagement and dialogue.    Somewhere in the mists of history, I probably ticked a box about it at some point, curious to see what it would do.   But the rhythm of this conversation is too disjoint to make it feel like there is a meaningful dialogue.

By the time my fridge art was delivered, I forgot I’d ordered it.    And I didn’t have any fun making it.

Above all – don’t be rude

So I have some doubts about the way Google has gone about collaborating with me, by doing art with my Photos when I am not looking.   That’s one problem, and it’s an interesting one.

But there’s a different problem with my last notification, which offered to get rid of my clutter.   To be polite, I thought this astonishingly ill-conceived as a conversation gambit.  Immediately after offering me up a bunch of unwanted fridge art – Google Photos has the total effrontery to refer to one of my photos as ‘clutter’?    Hello?

To me, this seems… unreasonably judgy.    It was also funny: the photo it picked out as a piece of clutter that I should get rid of was a copy of a paper-based vacation request from my just-finished stint of contracting at Google.    (You couldn’t make that up – and I didn’t.)

Organising my photos is something I might actively want to train Google Photos to do, or have it engage in dialog with me about, while it learns, and tries out various theories about what classifications I find might useful and pleasurable.   But judging what is and what is not clutter is a very personal thing.  And based on this first attempt it made, I have no reason to believe that Google Photos is ready to make this judgement on my behalf in a way that reflects my own personal needs and desires.

Google Photos may well have read Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing magic of Tidying Up.   It may also have read my vacation request and deemed it obsolete.  But I think it hasn’t yet really understood me – or the book.    And until it does, for sure I am not going to be passing over the controls to any sort of autonomous de-cluttering service it might offer.

What use to me is a Photo collection full of unwanted fridge art, while my own paperwork gets shredded?





Not all zones are created equal: player pleasure and player anaesthesia

I’ve been chasing the idea that, as ‘pure play’ chance experiences,  machine slots might embody interesting design patterns about the use of chance, ones that are generalisable to other genres of game designs and other types of player experiences.  To this end,  I’ve been mining  Natasha Schüll’s prize winning ethnological study, Addiction by Design for what it says about the player experience of chance.

What’s the attraction for players?  According to Schüll, people play machine slots in order to change how they feel.

“gamblers… act upon themselves through gambling devices with a goal of regulating their own affective states”,  p.20

But what is the state people are playing in order to achieve?  Players sometimes refer to it as ‘the zone’:

“The speed is relaxing,” said Lola… “It’s not exactly excitement; it’s calm, like a tranquilizer.  It gets me into the zone.” p. 54

What is ‘the zone’?  The term is often used in a way that is closely related to Csikszentmihaly’s concept of ‘flow’ – an optimal state in which people feel a sense of total absorbtion in their activity.

But clearly there’s zone and there’s zone.    The zone reached by machine slot players seems to be a zone of being zoned out, rather than the zone of peak human experience.   The experience seems to produce a kind of anaesthesia.

“The solitary, uninterrupted process of machine play…tends to produce a steady, trancelike state that ‘distracts from internal and external issues’ such as anxiety, depression, and boredom.” p. 17, Fn 89

“it is not the chance of winning to which they become addicted; rather what addicts them is the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.” p. 18

“…the “zone” – the elusive point of absorption, beyond contingency, that machine gamblers perpetually seek…  …[is] at once ‘safe’ and ‘precarious’ – a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect, both of which might at any instance lose momentum and come to a standstill.  The zone state is attainable only at the threshold where rhythm holds sway over risk, comfort over perturbation, habituation over surprise.”  p 135 Fn 93

This is quite different from the idea that gambling is in some way exciting.


Source: Wikimedia

Schüll’s discussions with industry insiders suggest that the most successful slot machines, successful in the sense of producing maximum revenue, are those with low volatility – a stream of small payouts and small wins – but which result in players who spend a long time on device.  Players do differ in risk preferences – but the most profitable ones are those who spend time in large amounts, spend money in small increments, and win steadily but not dramatically.     Large payouts can distract players and disrupt them so much that they fall out of their dreamlike state  – and perhaps even cash out, walking away with their winnings.

“As the journalist Marc Cooper remarked in 2005, “the new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of  a card but, rather, zone-out ‘escape’ players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels.”  p. 128 Fn 79

The question of why playing on low-volatility machines seems to induce a trancelike state is not much analysed, although Schüll provides eloquent descriptions of “rhythm over risk”, and”a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect” (p.135).   This question is something I’ll turn to in a post or two, after I look at what Schüll has to say about the designs which produce the player experiences she catalogues.




Fab Gamecamp input – ideas about location-based games

In my  last post I summarised where I’d got to so far with my search for the active weather fronts of location-based games – and yesterday’s pickings at Gamecamp were so rich that I had to put them into their own post.

By the way – if you are within day trip range of London and interested in a mellow, friendly, interesting games unconference, check out Gamecamp.  From what I can figure, participants are mix of indie inventors, academics, and enthusiasts.   The content is whatever people want to say on the day.  There are about 10 parallel sessions of about a half hour each – so always lots going on! The lunch, from Princi, is in itself is worth the (beguilingly modest) price of admission.  But I think the best thing about it is the positive vibe in the sessions.  People offer their expertise and opinion in a constructive and supportive way.  They are genuinely nice to each other.  They work to make the session work.

And you will find yourself playing games as well as talking about them.   Last year – my first year attending – I went to a session on playground games expecting a lecture and I ended up leaping around a classroom like a 6 year old.  Well, not exactly.  Best effort though.   This year I went for something that required less agility and tried out a card game prototype called Drunken Prophets.  (Reader, I won.  No comment.)

I had been thinking about whether to do a session and almost didn’t as I’d had a pretty busy week and I felt a temptation to chill in low revs.  But one of the organisers nudged me and I’m glad she did, because so many fab people came to my session, and added a lot to my growing as yet unorganised warehouse of Useful Stuff.   Thanks everyone!

Here’s a rundown of ideas and suggestions (n.b. if I got something wrong please sing out, either via the comments form or the contact form on the About tab, on twitter or wherever):

  • we had at least 4 Ingress players in the session – one super-expert (level 8!!), the others dabblers – people  agreed there was an easy enough onramp for starting play, but to really get the most out of it you had to be committed, and battery life was a huge issue with a full charge only giving about an hour of play.  pro tip: our expert player said that people who wanted to play for more than an hour took chargers and chargepacks with them.
  • it was noted with interest that Ingress populates Google’s Field Trip app with geolocated content – a nice (and probably enitrely intentional) side effect for Google
  • we had a geocacher who updated me that geocaching has moved on to mobile – he said it was a great way to make transient, fun social connections via a shared goal
  • we had several Zombie’s Run! users, there was debate about whether it was really a location-based game (answer = probably not), many commented on its simplicity and lack of features but despite that, it had got several people back into running and was very atmospheric (in a scary way) – running alone on the moors or in a forest to the sound track of zombie pursuit was frightening
  • one player played a game at the British Museum, then realised he was ignoring the richness around him, which
  • the use of maps as a platform for games was seen by some as reductive and limiting – because of the cultural preconceptions about what abstractions the maps should support – and because of it inability to capture some important features (think “Edinburgh”) – though clearly also a huge enabler

People also recommended I check out:

  • Arcade Fire’s use of Google Maps and HTML 5 for their customised video soundtrack
  • MotiRoti
  • Haunted Planet
  • Blast Theory’s Fixing point
  • Amblr’s work on delivering “geo-located audio-visual experiences through mobile devices” (which is a quote from their graphic designer)

More than a handful of people were making their own location-based games, of various styles and flavours, one based on Google StreetView, nobody mentioned insurmountable technological hassles, but someone mentioned it would be nice to have a WordPress for location-based games.   Tool-wise, people mentioned ConductRR’s transmedia story telling app as a facilitator for cross-media content.

So, enough to be getting on with for the moment.    Thanks everyone!!