It’s currently Monday of Week 372, and I’m writing this regarding last week. So I’m late with these notes and I’ll not talk about what everyone’s been up to but instead I’ll talk about what’s in my head.
For one reason and another (I’ll tell you over a coffee, remind me) we were locked out of the studio for a couple days last week and had to variously bunk at the offices of generous friends in the neighbourhood, and work at home. Disruptive.
Over the week Matt Jones pointed me at a Wikipedia article about black start. A black start is (and let me quote from the article here) “the process of restoring a power station to operation without relying on the external electric power transmission network.”
Like, let’s say you have a hydroelectric plant. You need falling water to drive the turbines. But how do you open the sluices without a pre-existing supply of electricity?
Or let’s say it’s summer and the power grid has been down for a while. As soon as you boot it up, aircon will come on all over the city, a demand much greater than aircon switching on and off in the “steady state” situation, so suddenly you’re overloaded. Which means you need a rolling power-up.
“Black start” is full of considerations and strategies.
Like bootstraps: a battery starts a diesel generator, starts a hydro station, energises a subset of the grid, ignites a coal station, restarts the nuclear plant.
I was burgled recently, and between my partner and myself we had no house keys (all gone), no cash and no cards, and the knowledge somebody might come back. The boot-up was all from our phones. Use the phone to get an emergency credit card; scrabble around for pennies to get the bus to get the card; get cash, get a locksmith, get security on the house. Once stable and secure, get more cards, get replacement gear, etc.
You know, I remember reading this great book, Lion’s Commentary on UNIX, an annotated version of the source code of an early operating system. And in it you can see the very first moment of the sun, the code that runs to declare what is a “file” anyway, and what a “process” is, and then you can use those concepts to bootstrap the next level of complexity.
I find these deeply fascinating ideas!
Because we’re in our own black start right now.
Not just getting back into the studio last Friday morning, although that’s what made me draw the connection.
But we’re starting a design studio whose mission is to use the network to transform every existing product, and to invent new ones.
Little Printer is a part of that — bringing into the world something that isn’t quite a product, isn’t quite a service, and isn’t quite media. Something new. And meanwhile battling such immaterial forces as radio (don’t talk to me about radio frequency interference, although we’re past that particular corner now) and risk/finance/law (which turns out to be a hideously complex part of setting up the supply chain and sales).
Also the consultancy. We just finished our first unabashed product design work right in the middle of the “smart product” sector. Networked kitchenware with [redacted] as a client. And I’m super proud of it. It’s beautiful, inventive, and – mostly importantly for me – accessible. This product won’t be just for smart product connoisseurs, it’ll be for everyone. We’re just starting on the second phase now.
Other consultancy work touches various parts of what smart products mean, to experience, for interfaces, in terms of new norms, for companies and for humans. So one our ways of transforming products will be influencing their design by collaborating with the R&D departments of major technology firms. But this kitchenware work is the sharp end of it: thinking through making, in order to invent products that end up in people’s homes. More of that please.
And all this is tough, you know, starting up an autopoietic system from scratch, trying to get every single part to move simultaneously.
So getting a studio like this up-and-running feels like a black start.
One day we’ll be our own power station, humming along and lighting up a city of smart products, ones touched by particular BERG values — happiness and hope, whimsy, socialising, play, excitement, culture, invention.
In the meantime: we do what has to be done. Fire up the diesel generators! Jump start the heavy turbines by flashing the electricity grid with a solar flare to create a potential difference across 2,000 miles! (Can we arrange that? I suppose not, but it’s worth a go.)
You take on work to build capabilities to generate experience and expertise. You punt the ball as high as possible into the air, judging that you can get a team beneath it before it comes down. You jumpstart. You do things during the process that you wouldn’t do in operation. But during the start, there’s no point waiting. It’s the order that matters. Order and speed.
And I look at the things that I’m doing, and when my intuition tells me that something isn’t right – because that’s not what a fully operating machine would do – or when my intuition tells me something is necessary but my logic queries it — I try to remember that this is just where we are in the process, and double-check my assumptions. Remember this: These are the revolutionaries going town to town in Cuba, doing what needs to be done to close in on Havana. One day someone will have to figure out the national endowment for the arts. But not today. This is the bootstrap, where you cut through and do what has to be done because this is what you’ve got, and you gotta get to the point where the run loop runs. This is the colonisation of Ka, of Thalassa, of Reiradi, of Sindychew. It’s the runway, it’s why people take funding (we didn’t, we’ve been going 7 years and every 24 months it’s a bigger bootstrap), it’s what you do to make the reaction self-sustaining so you can light up the city. It’s the black start.
So yeah, that’s what was on my mind last week, in week 371. And then over the weekend I relaxed by spending a couple of days in the sun watching the cricket. South Africa methodically trounced England, if you really want to know.
The black start.