“I want the middleman back”

A friend told me she said this recently, after lamenting the amount of time she was spending on various bits of online admin and form filling. It led her to thinking of more simple times when middlemen did things for us, and rather than moaning about the overheads caused by such people, she thought more idealistically, as if perhaps they weren’t so bad. While it was just a passing thought, in a moment of exacerbation, I wondered if she’s actually on to something.

First thought for me when hearing the term ‘middleman’ these days is oddly middlemanapp.com. I say oddly as I never really knew what it was, but I remember Erin, Jamie, Tom and others using it a while ago and thinking then how funny it was to hear the negative term utilised for something preferable. And here it is again. 

I think then that we’re coming out of 15 years or so of increasingly doing things for ourselves online, but that we’re getting fatigued and starting to wish there was less to do. Yes, is sounded liberating in the early 2000s, to be able to shop online, check our bills and bank online, search for better deals online, seek the best holiday offers and then check ourselves in online, but on mass, maybe those middlemen overheads weren’t always so bad.

I wonder if this is where AI will come in. Siri et al seem little more than generally frustrating audible search engine queries, but as that technology improves, I’m starting to see more clearly how that just asking for something to be done, not just searched for, could be preferable and powerful. 

“What’s the weather?… What’s in my calendar?… Add a reminder…” are just training questions and requests for now that can make it seem pointless or fanciful to use that interface rather than a keypad, but “Book my flights… send my tax return… buy a gift for Mum and get it to her before her birthday…” are going to be irresistible. 

That said, with the last two, if the AI gets good enough, will we even have to remind them? Tax files submitted and gifts sent without us having to ask? Just crawl and pull together dates, details, obligations and preferences from emails, calendars, texts and conversations overheard by Echo and Bob’s your AI uncle as well as your accountant and personal assistant. 

While this isn’t the first time I’ve realised where Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook etc. are all going with AI and algorithms, there was something about hearing a friend wish for a middleman that brought home the scale of the opportunity for getting it right. 

People want ease above all else. That want is our single biggest exploitable evolutionary weakness and what every piece of design is designed to be appealing to. The middlemen are coming back. And this time, they’re impersonal. 

Sort of footnotes: I laughed at x.ai and still do in the current functional form, but again, I feel more aware and respectful now for where their goals are focused. I wonder too what the future of Vertu will be when AI is better than humans and their concierge USP is just a default in every mobile OS. Oh, and I’ve still not watched Her and still don’t feel like it for some reason. Maybe because I did see Black Mirror: Be Right Back which I can’t quite image Her being better than.  

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