Everything intercepts us from ourselves

    Seeing through is rarely seeing into

    Lifequakes

    One way of thinking about the pandemic is as inevitable, and just one of a series of life-changing events that will happen to you during your time on earth.

    Whereas some people seem to think that life should be trouble- and pain-free, it's clear by even a cursory glance at history that this an impossible expectation.

    This article is a useful one for reframing the pandemic as a change that we're literally all going through together, but which will affect us differently:

    Transitions feel like an abnormal disruption to life, but in fact they are a predictable and integral part of it. While each change may be novel, major life transitions happen with clocklike regularity. Life is one long string of them, in fact. The author Bruce Feiler wrote a book called Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. After interviewing hundreds of people about their transitions, he found that a major change in life occurs, on average, every 12 to 18 months. Huge ones—what Feiler calls “lifequakes”—happen three to five times in each person’s life. Some lifequakes are voluntary and joyful, such as getting married or having a child. Others are involuntary and unwelcome, such as unemployment or life-threatening illness.

    Arthur C. Brooks, The Clocklike Regularity of Major Life Changes (The Atlantic)

    Friday fashionings

    When sitting down to put together this week's round-up, which is coming to you slightly later than usual because of <gestures indeterminately> all this, I decided that I'd only focus on things that are positive; things that might either raise a smile or make you think "oh, interesting!"

    Let me know if I've succeeded in the comments below, via Twitter, Mastodon, or via email!


    Digital Efficiency: the appeal of the minimalist home screen

    The real advantage of going with a launcher like this instead of a more traditional one is simple: distraction reduction and productivity increases. Everything done while using this kind of setup is deliberate. There is no scrolling through pages upon pages of apps. There is no scrolling through Google Discover with story after story that you will probably never read. Instead between 3–7 app shortcuts are present, quick links to clock and calendar, and not much else. This setup requires you as the user to do an inventory of what apps you use the most. It really requires the user to rethink how they use their phone and what apps are the priority.

    Omar Zahran (UX Collective)

    A year ago, I wrote a post entitled Change your launcher, change your life about minimalist Android launchers. I'm now using the Before Launcher, because of the way you can easily and without any fuss customise notifications. Thanks to Ian O'Byrne for the heads-up in the We Are Open Slack channel.


    It's Time for Shoulder Stretches

    Cow face pose is the yoga name for that stretch where one hand reaches down your back, and the other hand reaches up. (There’s a corresponding thing you do with your legs, but forget it for now—we’re focusing on shoulders today.) If you can’t reach your hands together, it feels like a challenging or maybe impossible pose.

    Lifehacker UK

    I was pretty shocked that I couldn't barely do this with my right hand at the top and my left at the bottom. I was very shocked that I got nowhere near the other way around. It just goes to show that those people who work at home really need to work on back muscles and flexibility.


    Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks Rapped Over Dr. Dre’s Beats

    As someone who a) thinks Dr. Dre was an amazing producer, and b) read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks to his children roughly 1 million times (enough to be able to, eventually, get through the entire book at a comically high rate of speed w/o any tongue twisting slip-ups), I thought Wes Tank’s video of himself rapping Fox in Socks over Dre’s beats was really fun and surprisingly well done.

    Jason Kottke

    One of the highlights of my kids being a bit younger than they are now was to read Dr. Suess to them. Fox in Socks was my absolute tongue-twisting favourite! So this blew me away, and then when I went through to YouTube, the algorithm recommended Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) rapping Blackalicious' Alphabet Aerobics. Whoah.


    Swimming pool with a view

    Google launches free version of Stadia with a two-month Pro trial

    Google is launching the free version of its Stadia game streaming service today. Anyone with a Gmail address can sign up, and Google is even providing a free two-month trial of Stadia Pro as part of the launch. It comes just two months after Google promised a free tier was imminent, and it will mean anyone can get access to nine titles, including GRID, Destiny 2: The Collection, and Thumper, free of charge.

    Tom Warren (The Verge)

    This is exactly the news I've been waiting for! Excellent.


    Now is a great time to make some mediocre art

    Practicing simple creative acts on a regular basis can give you a psychological boost, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology. A 2010 review of more than 100 studies of art’s impact on health revealed that pursuits like music, writing, dance, painting, pottery, drawing, and photography improved medical outcomes, mental health, social networks, and positive identity. It was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

    Gwen Moran (Fast Company)

    I love all of the artists on Twitter and Instagram giving people daily challenges. My family have been following along with some of them!


    What do we hear when we dream?

    [R]esearchers at Norway's Vestre Viken Hospital Trust and the University of Bergen conducted a small study to quantify the auditory experience of dreamers. Why? Because they wanted to "assess the relevance of dreaming as a model for psychosis." Throughout history, they write, psychologists have considered dreamstates to be a model for psychosis, yet people experiencing psychosis usually suffer from auditory hallucinations far more than visual ones. Basically, what the researchers determined is that the reason so little is known about auditory sensations while dreaming is because, well, nobody asks what people's dreams sound like.

    David Pescovitz (Boing boing)

    This makes sense, if you think about it. The advice for doing online video is always that you get the audio right first. It would seem that it's the same for dreaming: that we pay attention more to what we 'hear' than what we 'see'.



    How boredom can inspire adventure

    Humans can’t stand being bored. Studies show we’ll do just about anything to avoid it, from compulsive smartphone scrolling right up to giving ourselves electric shocks. And as emotions go, boredom is incredibly good at parting us from our money – we’ll even try to buy our way out of the feeling with distractions like impulse shopping.

    Erin Craig (BBC Travel)

    The story in this article about a prisoner of war who dreamed up a daring escape is incredible, but does make the point that dreaming big when you're locked down is a grat idea.


    But what could you learn instead?

    “What did you learn today,” is a fine question to ask. Particularly right this minute, when we have more time and less peace of mind than is usually the norm.

    It’s way easier to get someone to watch–a YouTube comic, a Netflix show, a movie–than it is to encourage them to do something. But it’s the doing that allows us to become our best selves, and it’s the doing that creates our future.

    It turns out that learning isn’t in nearly as much demand as it could be. Our culture and our systems don’t push us to learn. They push us to conform and to consume instead.

    The good news is that each of us, without permission from anyone else, can change that.

    Seth Godin

    A timely, inspirational post from the always readable (and listen-worthy) Seth Godin.


    The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic

    This column has been in the works for some time, but my hope is that launching it during the pandemic will help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you. I hope this column will enrich your life, and equip you to enrich the lives of the people you love and lead.

    Arthur C. Brooks (The atlantic)

    A really handy way of looking at things, and I'm hoping that further articles in the series are just as good.


    Images by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck (they're all over Giphy so I just went to the original source and used the hi-res versions)

    Friday forebodings

    I think it's alright to say that this was a week when my spirits dropped a little. Apologies if that's not what you wanted to hear right now, and if it's reflected in what follows.

    For there to be good things there must also be bad. For there to be joy there must also be sorrow. And for there to be hope there must be despair. All of this will pass.


    We’re Finding Out How Small Our Lives Really Are

    But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.

    Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic)

    Part of the problem with all of this is that we don't know how long it's going to last, so we can't really make plans. It's like an extended limbo where you're supposed to just get on with it, whatever 'it' is...


    Career Moats in a Recession

    If you're going after a career moat now, remember that the best skills to go after are the ones that the market will value after the recession ends. You can’t necessarily predict this — the world is complex and the future is uncertain, but you should certainly keep the general idea in mind.

    A simpler version of this is to go after complementary skills to your current role. If you've been working for a bit, it's likely that you'll have a better understanding of your industry than most. So ask yourself: what complementary skills would make you more valuable to the employers in your job market?

    Cedric James (Commonplace)

    I'm fortunate to have switched from education to edtech at the right time. Elsewhere, James says that "job security is the ability to get your next job, not keep your current one" and that this depends on your network, luck, and having "rare and valuable skills". Indeed.


    Everything Is Innovative When You Ignore the Past

    This is hard stuff, and acknowledging it comes with a corollary: We, as a society, are not particularly special. Vinsel, the historian at Virginia Tech, cautioned against “digital exceptionalism,” or the idea that everything is different now that the silicon chip has been harnessed for the controlled movement of electrons.

    It’s a difficult thing for people to accept, especially those who have spent their lives building those chips or the software they run. “Just on a psychological level,” Vinsel said, “people want to live in an exciting moment. Students want to believe they’re part of a generation that’s going to change the world through digital technology or whatever.”

    Aaron Gordon (VICE)

    Everyone thinks they live in 'unprecedented' times, especially if they work in tech.


    ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?

    But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and it’s never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world we’re entering become clear.

    Peter C Baker (the Guardian)

    An interesting read, outlining the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis, but of course what comes next (CLIMATE CHANGE) is even bigger.


    The Terrible Impulse To Rally Around Bad Leaders In A Crisis

    This tendency to rally around even incompetent leaders makes one despair for humanity. The correct response in all cases is contempt and an attempt, if possible, at removal of the corrupt and venal people in charge. Certainly no one should be approving of the terrible jobs they [Cuomo, Trump, Johnson] have done.

    All three have or will use their increased power to do horrible things. The Coronavirus bailout bill passed by Congress and approved by Trump is a huge bailout of the rich, with crumbs for the poor and middle class. So little, in fact, that there may be widespread hunger soon. Cuomo is pushing forward with his cuts, and I’m sure Johnson will live down to expectations.

    Ian Welsh

    I'm genuinely shocked that the current UK government's approval ratings are so high. Yes, they're covering 80% of the salary of those laid-off, but the TUC was pushing for an even higher figure. It's like we're congratulating neoliberal idiots for destroying our collectively ability to be able to respond to this crisis effectively.


    As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets

    Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.

    Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.

    Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun (The New York Times)

    I've seen a lot of suggestions around smarpthone tracking to help with the pandemic response. How, exactly, when it's trivial to spoof your location? It's just more surveillance by the back door.


    How to Resolve Any Conflict in Your Team

    Have you ever noticed that when you argue with someone smart, if you manage to debunk their initial reasoning, they just shift to a new, logical-sounding reason?

    Reasons are like a salamander’s legs — if you cut one off, another grows in its place.

    When you’re dealing with a salamander, you need to get to the heart. Forget about reasoning and focus on what’s causing the emotions. According to [non-violent communication], every negative emotion is the result of an unmet, universal need.

    Dave bailey

    Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.


    2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

    When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm.

    Martin Weller (The Ed Techie)

    Some of the examples given in this post gave me a much-needed chuckle.


    Now's the time – 15 epic video games for the socially isolated

    However, now that many of us are finding we have time on our hands, it could be the opportunity we need to attempt some of the more chronologically demanding narrative video game masterpieces of the last decade.

    Keith Stuart (The Guardian)

    Well, yes, but what we probably need even more is multiplayer mode. Red Dead Redemption II is on this list, and it's one of the best games ever made. However, it's tinged with huge sadness for me as it's a game I greatly enjoyed playing with the late, great, Dai Barnes.


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    Header image by Alex Fu

    Friday flickerings

    I've tried to include some links here to other things here, but just like all roads read to Rome, all links eventually point to the pandemic.

    I hope you and people that you care about are well. Stay safe, stay indoors, and let me know which of the following resonate with you!


    Supermensch

    Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.

    Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)

    A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.


    The Second Golden Age of Blogging

    Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)

    Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)

    I've been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It's the best and most enjoyable thing about 'work'.


    NASA Fixes Mars Lander By Telling It to Hit Itself With a Shovel

    NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.

    Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.

    Dan Robitzski (Futurism)

    The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.


    Act as if You’re Really There

    Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?

    Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)

    Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, "every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities."


    People Are Looping Videos to Fake Paying Attention in Zoom Meetings

    On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you're going for. Zoom says it isn't using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss' sake. With one of these images on your background, you're free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you're still there paying attention:

    Samantha Cole (Vice)

    As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!


    A Guide to Hosting Virtual Events with Zoom

    There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.

    Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)

    This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!


    The rise of the bio-surveillance state

    Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.

    Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)

    We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don't end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.


    The economy v our lives? It's a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

    Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)

    Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world's economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there's no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called 'the economy' which is separate from human relationships.


    How the Pandemic Will End

    Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

    Ed Yong (The Atlantic)

    Much of this is a bit depressing, but I've picked up on the more positive bit towards the end. See also the article I wrote earlier this week: People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character


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    Header image by Sincerely Media.

    Friday fumings

    My bet is that you've spent most of this week reading news about the global pandemic. Me too. That's why I decided to ensure it's not mentioned at all in this week's link roundup!

    Let me know what resonates with you... 😷


    Finding comfort in the chaos: How Cory Doctorow learned to write from literally anywhere

    My writing epiphany — which arrived decades into my writing career — was that even though there were days when the writing felt unbearably awful, and some when it felt like I was mainlining some kind of powdered genius and sweating it out through my fingertips, there was no relation between the way I felt about the words I was writing and their objective quality, assessed in the cold light of day at a safe distance from the day I wrote them. The biggest predictor of how I felt about my writing was how I felt about me. If I was stressed, underslept, insecure, sad, hungry or hungover, my writing felt terrible. If I was brimming over with joy, the writing felt brilliant.

    Cory Doctorow (CBC)

    Such great advice in here from the prolific Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a great writer, he's a great speaker, too. I think both come from practice and clarity of thought.


    Slower News

    Trends, micro-trends & edge cases.

    This is a site that specialises in important and interesting news that is updated regularly, but not on an hour-by-hour (or even daily) basis. A wonderful antidote to staring at your social media feed for updates!


    SCARF: The 5 key ingredients for psychological safety in your team

    There’s actually a mountain of compelling evidence that the single most important ingredient for healthy, high-performing teams is simple: it’s trust. When Google famously crunched the data on hundreds of high-performing teams, they were surprised to find that one variable mattered more than any other: “emotional safety.” Also known as: “psychological security.” Also known as: trust.

    Matt Thompson

    I used to work with Matt at Mozilla, and he's a pretty great person to work alongside. He's got a book coming out this year, and Laura (another former Mozilla colleague, but also a current co-op colleague!) drew my attention to this.


    I Illustrated National Parks In America Based On Their Worst Review And I Hope They Will Make You Laugh (16 Pics)

    I'm an illustrator and I have always had a personal goal to draw all 62 US National Parks, but I wanted to find a unique twist for the project. When I found that there are one-star reviews for every single park, the idea for Subpar Parks was born. For each park, I hand-letter a line from the one-star reviews alongside my illustration of each park as my way of putting a fun and beautiful twist on the negativity.

    Amber Share (Bored Panda)

    I love this, especially as the illustrations are so beautiful and the comments so banal.


    What Does a Screen Do?

    We know, for instance, that smartphone use is associated with depression in teens. Smartphone use certainly could be the culprit, but it’s also possible the story is more complicated; perhaps the causal relationship works the other way around, and depression drives teenagers to spend more time on their devices. Or, perhaps other details about their life—say, their family background or level of physical activity—affect both their mental health and their screen time. In short: Human behavior is messy, and measuring that behavior is even messier.

    Jane C. Hu (Slate)

    This, via Ian O'Byrne, is a useful read for anyone who deals with kids, especially teenagers.


    13 reads to save for later: An open organization roundup

    For months, writers have been showering us with multiple, ongoing series of articles, all focused on different dimensions of open organizational theory and practice. That's led to to a real embarrassment of riches—so many great pieces, so little time to catch them all.

    So let's take moment to reflect. If you missed one (or several) now's your chance to catch up.

    Bryan Behrenshausen (Opensource.com)

    I've already shared some of the articles in this roundup, but I encourage you to check out the rest, and subscribe to opensource.com. It's a great source of information and guidance.


    It Doesn’t Matter If Anyone Exists or Not

    Capitalism has always transformed people into latent resources, whether as labor to exploit for making products or as consumers to devour those products. But now, online services make ordinary people enact both roles: Twitter or Instagram followers for conversion into scrap income for an influencer side hustle; Facebook likes transformed into News Feed-delivery refinements; Tinder swipes that avoid the nuisance of the casual encounters that previously fueled urban delight. Every profile pic becomes a passerby—no need for an encounter, even.

    Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

    An amazing piece of writing, in which Ian Bogost not only surveys previous experiences with 'strangers' but applies it to the internet. As he points out, there is a huge convenience factor in not knowing who made your sandwich. I've pointed out before that capitalism is all about scale, and at the end of the day, caring doesn't scale, and scaling doesn't care.


    You don't want quality time, you want garbage time

    We desire quality moments and to make quality memories. It's tempting to think that we can create quality time just by designating it so, such as via a vacation. That generally ends up backfiring due to our raised expectations being let down by reality. If we expect that our vacation is going to be perfect, any single mistake ruins the experience

    In contrast, you are likely to get a positive surprise when you have low expectations, which is likely the case during a "normal day". It’s hard to match perfection, and easy to beat normal. Because of this, it's more likely quality moments come out of chance

    If you can't engineer quality time, and it's more a matter of random events, it follows that you want to increase how often such events happen. You can't increase the probability, but you can increase the duration for such events to occur. Put another way, you want to increase quantity of time, and not engineer quality time.

    Leon Lin (Avoid boring people)

    There's a lot of other interesting-but-irrelevant things in this newsletter, so scroll to the bottom for the juicy bit. I've quoted the most pertinent point, which I definitely agree with. There's wisdom in Gramsci's quotation about having "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".


    The Prodigal Techbro

    The prodigal tech bro doesn’t want structural change. He is reassurance, not revolution. He’s invested in the status quo, if we can only restore the founders’ purity of intent. Sure, we got some things wrong, he says, but that’s because we were over-optimistic / moved too fast / have a growth mindset. Just put the engineers back in charge / refocus on the original mission / get marketing out of the c-suite. Government “needs to step up”, but just enough to level the playing field / tweak the incentives. Because the prodigal techbro is a moderate, centrist, regular guy. Dammit, he’s a Democrat. Those others who said years ago what he’s telling you right now? They’re troublemakers, disgruntled outsiders obsessed with scandal and grievance. He gets why you ignored them. Hey, he did, too. He knows you want to fix this stuff. But it’s complicated. It needs nuance. He knows you’ll listen to him. Dude, he’s just like you…

    Maria Farrell (The Conversationalist)

    Now that we're experiencing something of a 'techlash' it's unsurprising that those who created surveillance capitalism have had a 'road to Damascus' experience. That doesn't mean, as Maria Farrell points out, that we should all of a sudden consider them to be moral authorities.


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    We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet

    Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts


    Last week, I tweeted this:

    I delete my tweets automatically every 30 days, hence the screenshot...

    I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I'd been quarantined.


    Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.

    Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?

    Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

    If you're a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in 'meatspace', then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it's also quite... weird.

    It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.

    Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

    I've worked from home for the last eight years, and now can't imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.


    I haven't watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we're creating. Here's the synopsis via IMDB:

    People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It's an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don't exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.

    IMDB

    If we replace the word 'robotic' with 'virtual' in this plot summary, then it's a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one's happy.


    Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn't we?

    I think we'll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that's going to be in high demand, if it isn't already.


    Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.

    However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.

    Being 'good in the room' is fine, and I'm sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that's rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it's not something in which you can receive a diploma.


    For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I'm not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.

    For example, let's just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.

    So, let's imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world's biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?

    Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We'd see changes in:

    • Schools
    • Volunteering
    • Offices
    • House prices
    • Community cohesion
    • High street
    • Home delivery

    ...to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.


    I'll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed's excellent (long!) post on what he's calling a global phase shift. Medium says it's a 30-minute read, but I reckon it's about half that.

    Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we've got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls "a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach". We must work together to solve the world's problems.

    The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.

    Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.

    Nafeez Ahmed

    Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?


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    Header image by pan xiaozhen. Anonymous quotation-as-title taken from Scott Klososky's The Velocity Manifesto

    Friday filchings

    I'm having to write this ahead of time due to travel commitments. Still, there's the usual mixed bag of content in here, everything from digital credentials through to survival, with a bit of panpsychism thrown in for good measure.

    Did any of these resonate with you? Let me know!


    Competency Badges: the tail wagging the dog?

    Recognition is from a certain point of view hyperlocal, and it is this hyperlocality that gives it its global value – not the other way around. The space of recognition is the community in which the competency is developed and activated. The recognition of a practitioner in a community is not reduced to those generally considered to belong to a “community of practice”, but to the intersection of multiple communities and practices, starting with the clients of these practices: the community of practice of chefs does not exist independently of the communities of their suppliers and clients. There is also a very strong link between individual recognition and that of the community to which the person is identified: shady notaries and politicians can bring discredit on an entire community.

    Serge Ravet

    As this roundup goes live I'll be at Open Belgium, and I'm looking forward to catching up with Serge while I'm there! My take on the points that he's making in this (long) post is actually what I'm talking about at the event: open initiatives need open organisations.


    Universities do not exist ‘to produce students who are useful’, President says

    Mr Higgins, who was opening a celebration of Trinity College Dublin’s College Historical Debating Society, said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”.

    “They are there to produce citizens who are respectful of the rights of others to participate and also to be able to participate fully, drawing on a wide range of scholarship,” he said on Monday night.

    The President said there is a growing cohort of people who are alienated and “who feel they have lost their attachment to society and decision making”.

    Jack Horgan-Jones (The Irish Times)

    As a Philosophy graduate, I wholeheartedly agree with this, and also with his assessment of how people are obsessed with 'markets'.


    Perennial philosophy

    Not everyone will accept this sort of inclusivism. Some will insist on a stark choice between Jesus or hell, the Quran or hell. In some ways, overcertain exclusivism is a much better marketing strategy than sympathetic inclusivism. But if just some of the world’s population opened their minds to the wisdom of other religions, without having to leave their own faith, the world would be a better, more peaceful place. Like Aldous Huxley, I still believe in the possibility of growing spiritual convergence between different religions and philosophies, even if right now the tide seems to be going the other way.

    Jules Evans (Aeon)

    This is an interesting article about the philosophy of Aldous Huxley, whose books have always fascinated me. For some reason, I hadn't twigged that he was related to Thomas Henry Huxley (aka "Darwin's bulldog").


    Photo by Scott Webb
    Photo by Scott Webb

    What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits

    So what really failed, maybe, wasn’t iTunes at all—it was the implicit promise of Gmail-style computing. The explosion of cloud storage and the invention of smartphones both arrived at roughly the same time, and they both subverted the idea that we should organize our computer. What they offered in its place was a vision of ease and readiness. What the idealized iPhone user and the idealized Gmail user shared was a perfect executive-functioning system: Every time they picked up their phone or opened their web browser, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, got it done with a calm single-mindedness, and then closed their device. This dream illuminated Inbox Zero and Kinfolk and minimalist writing apps. It didn’t work. What we got instead was Inbox Infinity and the algorithmic timeline. Each of us became a wanderer in a sea of content. Each of us adopted the tacit—but still shameful—assumption that we are just treading water, that the clock is always running, and that the work will never end.

    Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic)

    This is curiously-written (and well-written) piece, in the form of an ordered list, that takes you through the changes since iTunes launched. It's hard to disagree with the author's arguments.


    Imagine a world without YouTube

    But what if YouTube had failed? Would we have missed out on decades of cultural phenomena and innovative ideas? Would we have avoided a wave of dystopian propaganda and misinformation? Or would the internet have simply spiraled into new — yet strangely familiar — shapes, with their own joys and disasters?

    Adi Robertson (The Verge)

    I love this approach of imagining how the world would have been different had YouTube not been the massive success it's been over the last 15 years. Food for thought.


    Big Tech Is Testing You

    It’s tempting to look for laws of people the way we look for the laws of gravity. But science is hard, people are complex, and generalizing can be problematic. Although experiments might be the ultimate truthtellers, they can also lead us astray in surprising ways.

    Hannah Fry (The New Yorker)

    A balanced look at the way that companies, especially those we classify as 'Big Tech' tend to experiment for the purposes of engagement and, ultimately, profit. Definitely worth a read.


    Photo by David Buchi
    Photo by David Buchi

    Trust people, not companies

    The trend to tap into is the changing nature of trust. One of the biggest social trends of our time is the loss of faith in institutions and previously trusted authorities. People no longer trust the Government to tell them the truth. Banks are less trusted than ever since the Financial Crisis. The mainstream media can no longer be trusted by many. Fake news. The anti-vac movement. At the same time, we have a generation of people who are looking to their peers for information.

    Lawrence Lundy (Outlier Ventures)

    This post is making the case for blockchain-based technologies. But the wider point is a better one, that we should trust people rather than companies.


    The Forest Spirits of Today Are Computers

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Agriculture de-wilded the meadows and the forests, so that even a seemingly pristine landscape can be a heavily processed environment. Manufactured products have become thoroughly mixed in with natural structures. Now, our machines are becoming so lifelike we can’t tell the difference. Each stage of technological development adds layers of abstraction between us and the physical world. Few people experience nature red in tooth and claw, or would want to. So, although the world of basic physics may always remain mindless, we do not live in that world. We live in the world of those abstractions.

    George Musser (Nautilus)

    This article, about artificial 'panpsychism' is really challenging to the reader's initial assumptions (well, mine at least) and really makes you think.


    The man who refused to freeze to death

    It would appear that our brains are much better at coping in the cold than dealing with being too hot. This is because our bodies’ survival strategies centre around keeping our vital organs running at the expense of less essential body parts. The most essential of all, of course, is our brain. By the time that Shatayeva and her fellow climbers were experiencing cognitive issues, they were probably already experiencing other organ failures elsewhere in their bodies.

    William Park (BBC Future)

    Not just one story in this article, but several with fascinating links and information.


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    Header image by Tim Mossholder.

    Friday fluidity

    I wasn't sure whether to share links about the Coronavirus this week, but obviously, like everyone else, I've been reading about it.

    Next week, my wife and I are heading to Belgium as I'm speaking at an event, and then we're spending the weekend in Bruges. I think we'll be OK. But even if we do contract the virus, the chances of us dying, or even being seriously ill, are vanishingly small. It's all very well being pragmatic, but you can't live your life in fear.

    Anyway, if you've heard enough about potential global pandemics, feel free to skip straight onto the second and third sections, where I share some really interesting links about organisations, productivtiy, security, and more!


    How I track the coronavirus

    I’ve been tracking it carefully for weeks, and have built up an online search strategy. I’d like to share a description of it here, partly in case it’s useful for readers, and also to request additions in case it’s missing anything.

    Bryan Alexander

    What I like about this post by Bryan is that he's sharing both his methods and go-to resources, without simultaneously sharing his conclusions. That's the mark of an open mind, and that's why I support him on Patreon.


    Coronavirus and World After Capital

    The danger we are now finding ourselves in can be directly traced to our reliance on the market mechanism for allocating attention. A global pandemic is an example of the kind of tail risk for which prices cannot exist. This is a key theme of my book World After Capital and I have been using pandemics as an alternative example to the climate crisis (another, while we are at it, are asteroid strikes).

    Albert Wenger (Continuations)

    I really must sit down and read World After Capital. In this short post, the author (a Venture Capitalist) explains why we need to allocate attention to what he calls 'tail risks'.


    You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

    Many countries have responded with containment attempts, despite the dubious efficacy and inherent harms of China’s historically unprecedented crackdown. Certain containment measures will be appropriate, but widely banning travel, closing down cities, and hoarding resources are not realistic solutions for an outbreak that lasts years. All of these measures come with risks of their own. Ultimately some pandemic responses will require opening borders, not closing them. At some point the expectation that any area will escape effects of COVID-19 must be abandoned: The disease must be seen as everyone’s problem.

    James Hamblin (The Atlantic)

    Will you get a cold at some point in your life? Yes, probably most winters in some form. Will you catch 'flu at some point in your life. Yes, probably, at some point. Will you get the Coronavirus. Almost certainly, but it's not going to kill you unless your very young, very old, or very weak.


    Image by Ivan Bandura
    Photo by Ivan Bandura

    Work Operating Systems? No, We Need Work Ecosystems.

    The principal limitation of the work OS concept is that companies do not operate independently: they are increasingly connected to other organizations. The model of work OS is too inwardly focused, when the real leverage may come from the interactions across company boundaries, or by lessening the barriers to cross-company cooperation. (In a sense, this is just the fullest expression of the ideal of cross-team and cross-department cooperation: if it’s good at the smallest scale, it is great at the largest scale.)

    Stowe Boyd (GigaOM)

    This post is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I absolutely agree with the end game that Boyd describes here. Second, our co-op has just started using Monday.com and have found it... fine, and doing what we need, but I can't wait for some organisation to go beyond the 'work OS'.


    Career Moats 101

    A career moat is an individual’s ability to maintain competitive advantages over your competition (say, in the job market) in order to protect your long term prospects, your employability, and your ability to generate sufficient financial returns to support the life you want to live. Just like a medieval castle, the moat serves to protect those inside the fortress and their riches from outsiders.

    cedric chin (Commonplace)

    I came across links to two different posts on the same blog this week, which made me investigate it further. The central thesis of the blog is that we should aim to build 'career moats', which is certainly an interesting way of thinking about things, and this link has some practical advice.


    Daily life with the offline laptop

    Having access to the Internet is a gift, I can access anything or anyone. But this comes with a few drawbacks. I can waste my time on anything, which is not particularly helpful. There are so many content that I only scratch things, knowing it will still be there when I need it, and jump to something else. The amount of data is impressive, one human can’t absorb that much, we have to deal with it.

    Solène Rapenne

    I love this idea of having a machine that remains offline and which you use for music and writing. Especially the writing. In fact, I was talking to someone earlier this week about using my old 1080p monitor in portrait mode with a Raspberry Pi to create a 'writing machine'. I might just do it...


    Photo by Lauren McConachie

    Spilling over: How working openly with anxiety affects my team

    At a fundamental level, I believe work is never done, that there is always another challenge to explore, other ways to have a larger impact. Leaders need to inspire and motivate us to embrace that reality as an exciting opportunity rather than an endless drudge or a source of continual worry.

    Sam Knuth (Opensource.com)

    This is a great article. As a leader and someone who's only admitted to myself recently that I am, indeed an 'anxious person', I see similarities with my experiences here.


    5 tricks to make the internet less distracting, so you can get stuff done

    Maybe you want to be more productive at work. Maybe you want to spend more time being creative or learning new skills. Or maybe you just wish you spent more time communicating with the people you love and less time scrolling through websites that bring you brief moments of joy just frequently enough that you’re willing to tolerate the broader feeling of anxiety/jealousy/outrage.

    The internet can be an amazing tool for pursuing these goals, but it’s not necessarily designed to push you toward it. You’ve got to work to create the environment for yourself. Here are some ways you can do just that.

    Justin Pot (Fast Company)

    It's now over five years since I wrote Curate or Be Curated. The article, and the warning it contains, stands the test of time, I think. The 'tricks' shared in this Fast Company article, shared by Ian O'Byrne are a helpful place to start.


    How to Dox Yourself on the Internet

    To help our Times colleagues think like doxxers, we developed a formal program that consists of a series of repeatable steps that can be taken to clean up an online footprint. Our goal with this program is to empower people to control the information they share, and to provide them with tools and resources to have a better awareness around the information they intentionally and unintentionally share online.
    We are now publicly releasing the content of this program for anyone to access. We think it is important for freelancers, activists, other newsrooms or people who want to take control of their own security online.

    The NYT Open Team

    This is a great idea. 'Doxxing' is the digging-up and sharing of personal information (e.g. home addresses) for the purposes of harrassment. This approach, where you try to 'dox' yourself so that you can take protective steps, is a great idea.


    Header image by Adli Wahid who says "Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. "

    Friday fertilisations

    I've read so much stuff over the past couple of months that it's been a real job whittling down these links. In the end I gave up and shared a few more than usual!

    • You Shouldn’t Have to Be Good at Your Job (GEN) — "This is how the 1% justifies itself. They are not simply the best in terms of income, but in terms of humanity itself. They’re the people who get invited into the escape pods when the mega-asteroid is about to hit. They don’t want a fucking thing to do with the rest of the population and, in fact, they have exploited global economic models to suss out who deserves to be among them and who deserves to be obsolete. And, thanks to lax governments far and wide, they’re free to practice their own mass experiments in forced Darwinism. You currently have the privilege of witnessing a worm’s-eye view of this great culling. Fun, isn’t it?"
    • We've spent the decade letting our tech define us. It's out of control (The Guardian) — "There is a way out, but it will mean abandoning our fear and contempt for those we have become convinced are our enemies. No one is in charge of this, and no amount of social science or monetary policy can correct for what is ultimately a spiritual deficit. We have surrendered to digital platforms that look at human individuality and variance as “noise” to be corrected, rather than signal to be cherished. Our leading technologists increasingly see human beings as a problem, and technology as the solution – and they use our behavior on their platforms as evidence of our essentially flawed nature."
    • How headphones are changing the sound of music (Quartz) — "Another way headphones are changing music is in the production of bass-heavy music. Harding explains that on small speakers, like headphones or those in a laptop, low frequencies are harder to hear than when blasted from the big speakers you might encounter at a concert venue or club. If you ever wondered why the bass feels so powerful when you are out dancing, that’s why. In order for the bass to be heard well on headphones, music producers have to boost bass frequencies in the higher range, the part of the sound spectrum that small speakers handle well."
    • The False Promise of Morning Routines (The Atlantic) — "Goat milk or no goat milk, the move toward ritualized morning self-care can seem like merely a palliative attempt to improve work-life balance.It makes sense to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual because you want to fit in some yoga, an activity that you enjoy. But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family."
    • Giant surveillance balloons are lurking at the edge of space (Ars Technica) — "The idea of a constellation of stratospheric balloons isn’t new—the US military floated the idea back in the ’90s—but technology has finally matured to the point that they’re actually possible. World View’s December launch marks the first time the company has had more than one balloon in the air at a time, if only for a few days. By the time you’re reading this, its other stratollite will have returned to the surface under a steerable parachute after nearly seven weeks in the stratosphere."
    • The Unexpected Philosophy Icelanders Live By (BBC Travel) — "Maybe it makes sense, then, that in a place where people were – and still are – so often at the mercy of the weather, the land and the island’s unique geological forces, they’ve learned to give up control, leave things to fate and hope for the best. For these stoic and even-tempered Icelanders, þetta reddast is less a starry-eyed refusal to deal with problems and more an admission that sometimes you must make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt."
    • What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity (HBR) — "While identifying closely with your career isn’t necessarily bad, it makes you vulnerable to a painful identity crisis if you burn out, get laid off, or retire. Individuals in these situations frequently suffer anxiety, depression, and despair. By claiming back some time for yourself and diversifying your activities and relationships, you can build a more balanced and robust identity in line with your values."
    • Having fun is a virtue, not a guilty pleasure (Quartz) — "There are also, though, many high-status workers who can easily afford to take a break, but opt instead to toil relentlessly. Such widespread workaholism in part reflects the misguided notion that having fun is somehow an indulgence, an act of absconding from proper respectable behavior, rather than embracement of life. "
    • It’s Time to Get Personal (Laura Kalbag) — "As designers and developers, it’s easy to accept the status quo. The big tech platforms already exist and are easy to use. There are so many decisions to be made as part of our work, we tend to just go with what’s popular and convenient. But those little decisions can have a big impact, especially on the people using what we build."
    • The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade (Hack Education) — "Oh yes, I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for “the future of education.” Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)"
    • Why so many Japanese children refuse to go to school (BBC News) — "Many schools in Japan control every aspect of their pupils' appearance, forcing pupils to dye their brown hair black, or not allowing pupils to wear tights or coats, even in cold weather. In some cases they even decide on the colour of pupils' underwear. "
    • The real scam of ‘influencer’ (Seth Godin) — "And a bigger part is that the things you need to do to be popular (the only metric the platforms share) aren’t the things you’d be doing if you were trying to be effective, or grounded, or proud of the work you’re doing."

    Image via Kottke.org

    I am not fond of expecting catastrophes, but there are cracks in the universe

    So said Sydney Smith. Let's talk about surveillance. Let's talk about surveillance capitalism and surveillance humanitarianism. But first, let's talk about machine learning and algorithms; in other words, let's talk about what happens after all of that data is collected.

    Writing in The Guardian, Sarah Marsh investigates local councils using "automated guidance systems" in an attempt to save money.

    The systems are being deployed to provide automated guidance on benefit claims, prevent child abuse and allocate school places. But concerns have been raised about privacy and data security, the ability of council officials to understand how some of the systems work, and the difficulty for citizens in challenging automated decisions.

    Sarah Marsh

    The trouble is, they're not particularly effective:

    It has emerged North Tyneside council has dropped TransUnion, whose system it used to check housing and council tax benefit claims. Welfare payments to an unknown number of people were wrongly delayed when the computer’s “predictive analytics” erroneously identified low-risk claims as high risk

    Meanwhile, Hackney council in east London has dropped Xantura, another company, from a project to predict child abuse and intervene before it happens, saying it did not deliver the expected benefits. And Sunderland city council has not renewed a £4.5m data analytics contract for an “intelligence hub” provided by Palantir.

    Sarah Marsh

    When I was at Mozilla there were a number of colleagues there who had worked on the OFA (Obama For America) campaign. I remember one of them, a DevOps guy, expressing his concern that the infrastructure being built was all well and good when there's someone 'friendly' in the White House, but what comes next.

    Well, we now know what comes next, on both sides of the Atlantic, and we can't put that genie back in its bottle. Swingeing cuts by successive Conservative governments over here, coupled with the Brexit time-and-money pit means that there's no attention or cash left.

    If we stop and think about things for a second, we probably wouldn't don't want to live in a world where machines make decisions for us, based on algorithms devised by nerds. As Rose Eveleth discusses in a scathing article for Vox, this stuff isn't 'inevitable' — nor does it constitute a process of 'natural selection':

    Often consumers don’t have much power of selection at all. Those who run small businesses find it nearly impossible to walk away from Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Etsy, even Amazon. Employers often mandate that their workers use certain apps or systems like Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs. “It is only the hyper-privileged who are now saying, ‘I’m not going to give my kids this,’ or, ‘I’m not on social media,’” says Rumman Chowdhury, a data scientist at Accenture. “You actually have to be so comfortable in your privilege that you can opt out of things.”

    And so we’re left with a tech world claiming to be driven by our desires when those decisions aren’t ones that most consumers feel good about. There’s a growing chasm between how everyday users feel about the technology around them and how companies decide what to make. And yet, these companies say they have our best interests in mind. We can’t go back, they say. We can’t stop the “natural evolution of technology.” But the “natural evolution of technology” was never a thing to begin with, and it’s time to question what “progress” actually means.

    Rose Eveleth

    I suppose the thing that concerns me the most is people in dire need being subject to impersonal technology for vital and life-saving aid.

    For example, Mark Latonero, writing in The New York Times, talks about the growing dangers around what he calls 'surveillance humanitarianism':

    By surveillance humanitarianism, I mean the enormous data collection systems deployed by aid organizations that inadvertently increase the vulnerability of people in urgent need.

    Despite the best intentions, the decision to deploy technology like biometrics is built on a number of unproven assumptions, such as, technology solutions can fix deeply embedded political problems. And that auditing for fraud requires entire populations to be tracked using their personal data. And that experimental technologies will work as planned in a chaotic conflict setting. And last, that the ethics of consent don’t apply for people who are starving.

    Mark Latonero

    It's easy to think that this is an emergency, so we should just do whatever is necessary. But Latonero explains the risks, arguing that the risk is shifted to a later time:

    If an individual or group’s data is compromised or leaked to a warring faction, it could result in violent retribution for those perceived to be on the wrong side of the conflict. When I spoke with officials providing medical aid to Syrian refugees in Greece, they were so concerned that the Syrian military might hack into their database that they simply treated patients without collecting any personal data. The fact that the Houthis are vying for access to civilian data only elevates the risk of collecting and storing biometrics in the first place.

    Mark Latonero

    There was a rather startling article in last weekend's newspaper, which I've found online. Hannah Devlin, again writing in The Guardian (which is a good source of information for those concerned with surveillance) writes about a perfect storm of social media and improved processing speeds:

    [I]n the past three years, the performance of facial recognition has stepped up dramatically. Independent tests by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist) found the failure rate for finding a target picture in a database of 12m faces had dropped from 5% in 2010 to 0.1% this year.

    The rapid acceleration is thanks, in part, to the goldmine of face images that have been uploaded to Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and captioned news articles in the past decade. At one time, scientists would create bespoke databases by laboriously photographing hundreds of volunteers at different angles, in different lighting conditions. By 2016, Microsoft had published a dataset, MS Celeb, with 10m face images of 100,000 people harvested from search engines – they included celebrities, broadcasters, business people and anyone with multiple tagged pictures that had been uploaded under a Creative Commons licence, allowing them to be used for research. The dataset was quietly deleted in June, after it emerged that it may have aided the development of software used by the Chinese state to control its Uighur population.

    In parallel, hardware companies have developed a new generation of powerful processing chips, called Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), uniquely adapted to crunch through a colossal number of calculations every second. The combination of big data and GPUs paved the way for an entirely new approach to facial recognition, called deep learning, which is powering a wider AI revolution.

    Hannah Devlin

    Those of you who have read this far and are expecting some big reveal are going to be disappointed. I don't have any 'answers' to these problems. I guess I've been guilty, like many of us have, of the kind of 'privacy nihilism' mentioned by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic:

    Online services are only accelerating the reach and impact of data-intelligence practices that stretch back decades. They have collected your personal data, with and without your permission, from employers, public records, purchases, banking activity, educational history, and hundreds more sources. They have connected it, recombined it, bought it, and sold it. Processed foods look wholesome compared to your processed data, scattered to the winds of a thousand databases. Everything you have done has been recorded, munged, and spat back at you to benefit sellers, advertisers, and the brokers who service them. It has been for a long time, and it’s not going to stop. The age of privacy nihilism is here, and it’s time to face the dark hollow of its pervasive void.

    Ian Bogost

    The only forces that we have to stop this are collective action, and governmental action. My concern is that we don't have the digital savvy to do the former, and there's definitely the lack of will in respect of the latter. Troubling times.

    Friday federations

    These things piqued my interest this week:

    • You Should Own Your Favorite Books in Hard Copy (Lifehacker) — "Most importantly, when you keep physical books around, the people who live with you can browse and try them out too."
    • How Creative Commons drives collaboration (Vox) "Although traditional copyright protects creators from others redistributing or repurposing their works entirely, it also restricts access, for both viewers and makers."
    • Key Facilitation Skills: Distinguishing Weird from Seductive (Grassroots Economic Organizing) — "As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest."
    • Why Being Bored Is Good (The Walrus) — "Boredom, especially the species of it that I am going to label “neoliberal,” depends for its force on the workings of an attention economy in which we are mostly willing participants."
    • 5: People having fun on the internet (Near Future Field Notes) — "The internet is still a really great place to explore. But you have to get back into Internet Nature instead of spending all your time in Internet Times Square wondering how everything got so loud and dehumanising."
    • The work of a sleepwalking artist offers a glimpse into the fertile slumbering brain (Aeon) "Lee Hadwin has been scribbling in his sleep since early childhood. By the time he was a teen, he was creating elaborate, accomplished drawings and paintings that he had no memory of making – a process that continues today. Even stranger perhaps is that, when he is awake, he has very little interest in or skill for art."
    • The Power of One Push-Up (The Atlantic) — "Essentially, these quick metrics serve as surrogates that correlate with all kinds of factors that determine a person’s overall health—which can otherwise be totally impractical, invasive, and expensive to measure directly. If we had to choose a single, simple, universal number to define health, any of these functional metrics might be a better contender than BMI."
    • How Wechat censors images in private chats (BoingBoing) — "Wechat maintains a massive index of the MD5 hashes of every image that Chinese censors have prohibited. When a user sends another user an image that matches one of these hashes, it's recognized and blocked at the server before it is transmitted to the recipient, with neither the recipient or the sender being informed that the censorship has taken place."
    • It's Never Too Late to Be Successful and Happy (Invincible Career) — "The “race” we are running is a one-person event. The most important comparison is to yourself. Are you doing better than you were last year? Are you a better person than you were yesterday? Are you learning and growing? Are you slowly figuring out what you really want, what makes you happy, and what fulfillment means for you?"
    • 'Blitzscaling' Is Choking Innovation—and Wasting Money (WIRED) — "If we learned anything from the dotcom bubble at the turn of the century, it’s that in an environment of abundant capital, money does not necessarily bestow competitive advantage. In fact, spending too much, to soon on unproven business models only heightens the risk that a company's race for global domination can become a race to oblivion."

    Image: Federation Square by Julien used under a Creative Commons license

    Friday ferretings

    These things jumped out at me this week:

    • Deepfakes will influence the 2020 election—and our economy, and our prison system (Quartz) ⁠— “The problem doesn’t stop at the elections, however. Deepfakes can alter the very fabric of our economic and legal systems. Recently, we saw a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bragging about abusing data collected from users circulated on the internet. The creators of this video said it was produced to demonstrate the power of manipulation and had no malicious intent—yet it revealed how deceptively realistic deepfakes can be.”
    • The Slackification of the American Home (The Atlantic) — “Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. 'The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,' says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. 'So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space'.”
    • You probably don’t know what your coworkers think of you. Here’s how to change that (Fast Company) — “[T]he higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.”
    • Sharing, Generosity and Gratitude (Cable Green, Creative Commons) — “David is home recovering and growing his liver back to full size. I will be at the Mayo Clinic through the end of July. After the Mayo surgeons skillfully transplanted ⅔ of David’s liver into me, he and I laughed about organ remixes, if he should receive attribution, and wished we’d have asked for a CC tattoo on my new liver.”
    • Flexibility as a key benefit of open (The Ed Techie) — “As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important.”
    • Abolish Eton: Labour groups aim to strip elite schools of privileges (The Guardian) — “Private schools are anachronistic engines of privilege that simply have no place in the 21st century,” said Lewis. “We cannot claim to have an education system that is socially just when children in private schools continue to have 300% more spent on their education than children in state schools.”
    • I Can't Stop Winning! (Pinboard blog) - “A one-person business is an exercise in long-term anxiety management, so I would say if you are already an anxious person, go ahead and start a business. You're not going to feel any worse. You've already got the main skill set of staying up and worrying, so you might as well make some money.”
    • How To Be The Remote Employee That Proves The Stereotypes Aren’t True (Trello blog) — “I am a big fan of over-communicating in general, and I truly believe that this is a rule all remote employees should swear by.”
    • I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked. (The New York Times) — “Ad campaigns that manipulate searchers’ behavior are frighteningly easy for anyone to run.”
    • Road-tripping with the Amazon Nomads (The Verge) — “To stock Amazon’s shelves, merchants travel the backroads of America in search of rare soap and coveted toys.”

    Image from Guillermo Acuña fronts his remote Chilean retreat with large wooden staircase (Dezeen)

    Aren’t you ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnants of your life and to dedicate to wisdom only that time can’t be directed to business?

    Once you remove the specific details from the lives of the ancients, their lives were remarkably like ours. Take today's title, for example, which is a quotation from Seneca. He knew what it was like to be so busy doing 'productive' things to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    My good friend Laura Hilliger wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the most no-nonsense person I know. By observing the way she lives and works, I'm learning to set limits and say exactly what I think:

    Alright. I give up. #protip - If you are unable to be productive, forcing yourself to try and be productive is making you even more unproductive. Read a book or something instead.

    The thing is that western society, implicitly at least, assumes that people are 'fixed' in terms of their personality and likes. But that's just the way that we choose to see ourselves:

    Diagram showing The Socialised Mind, The Self-Authoring Mind, and the Self-Transforming Mind

    I feel that the biggest thing that constrains us is our view of how we think other people see us. That perceived expectation becomes internalised, creating a 'psychic prison' which becomes an extremely limited playground. For better or for worse, we perform the role of how we think other people have come to see us.

    One way many people find to avoid responsibility for their life choices is to play the 'busy' card. They're too busy to make good decisions, to look after their mental and physical health, to ensure that they're doing your best work.

    The trouble is, that's simply not true. We've got more free time than our parents and grandparents:

    Chart taken from The Atlantic

    As the above chart demonstrates, it's not true that we actually work more hours. Instead, I think, it's that we're so concerned about how other people see us that we spend time doing things that feel like work but are mostly to do with presentation of self. Hence the amount of time spent on social networks like Instagram trying to create the highlights reel of our lives to show others.

    One way of viewing this is that we've collectively internalised capitalism. The logic of the market has become as invisible to us as an ideology as water is to fish. In fact, some people say it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism!

    How to know when you've internalised capitalism
- you determine your worth based on your productivity
- you feel guilty for resting
- your primary concern is to make yourself profitable
- you neglect your health
- you think 'hard work' is what brings happiness

    Of course, it's become something of a cliché in our pseudo-enlightened times to talk of capitalism as the meta-problem behind everything. But that doesn't make it any less true.

    Probably one of the biggest unacknowledged impacts of capitalism on our life is the artificial scarcity of time.
<p>Without capitalism, we could all work less. We could rest more. We could let selfcare, play and creation come intuitively. A lot of things don’t need to be scheduled.
We could just let time happen without any obligation to make a particular use of it." class=“wp-image-3968”/></a></figure></p>
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<p>When we act as if we're in a rush, things aren't properly scrutinised. Yesterday's news (and opinions, and facts) don't matter. It's all about today. Our politicians have no shame, and ethics are entirely subjective. </p>
<!-- /wp:paragraph -->
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    Existential Comics - Marx on Business Ethics (1)
    Existential Comics - Marx on Business Ethics (2)
    Existentialist Comics

    Our identity is mediated by the market, by what we produce instead of who we are. I keep coming back to a fantastic episode of Jocelyn K. Glei's Hurry Slowly podcast entitled Who Are You Without The Doing? in which she explains that we should learn to 'sit with ourselves', learning that change comes from within:

    You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.

    Jocelyn K. Glei

    Derek Sivers uses the metaphor of 'doors' to explain where he finds value and wants to spend time doing. Some doors he opens and it helps him grow as a person and fosters positive relationships.

    But one door is really no fun to open. I’m horrified at all the shouting, the second I open it. It’s an infinite dark room filled with psychologically tortured people, trying to get attention. Strangers screaming at strangers, starting fights. Businesses set up shop there, showing who’s said and done bad things today, because they make money when people get mad.

    Derek Sivers

    We keep wringing our hands about people's behaviour online, but it's that way for a reason. Hate is profitable for social networks:

    Massive platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube “optimize for engagement,” and make automatic, algorithmic suggestions for every bit of content or action. From “you might also like” to “recommended just for you” to prioritizing things — anything — that will get you to click, comment, or share.

    [...]

    They know what will catch your attention. They know what will get you “engaged.” They know what will be more likely to lead you deeper into a rabbit hole, and what will make it harder to climb back out. Is it a literal, iron-clad trap? No. But the slippery, spiral path that leads people to the darkest corners of the internet is not an accident.

    [...]

    Hate is profitable. Conflict is profitable. Schadenfreude and shame are profitable. While we smugly point fingers, tsk-tsk, and think we’re being clever as we strategically dole out likes and shares, we forget that we are all just gruel-fed hamsters running on wheels deep inside giant, hyper-engineered, artificially intelligent, fully gamified, corporate-controlled virtual worlds that we absurdly think belong to us.

    Ryan Ozawa

    This all comes back to the time equation. Because we feel like we don't have enough time to curate things ourselves, we outsource that to others. That ends up with handing our information environments over to others to manipulate and control. It's curate or be curated.

    Nobody cares about how much money you earn. Nobody cares how productive you are. Not really.

    Also, without sounding harsh, nobody else cares how productive you are. Of course, productivity is important for important things, and “getting stuff done” or whatever, but it doesn’t define you in any way. What does is things like your sense of humour, where your passions lie, how you comfort a friend who’s upset, and that weird noise you make when the delivery guy calls you to say he’s outside with your food.

    Leila Mitwally

    The trouble is that we don't want to have this conversation, because it questions our identity, and everything we've been working for over our careers and throughout our lives:

    But we don’t want to hear that because accepting this truth means asking a lot of complicated questions about our society, in which work is glorified as the pinnacle of self-expression, and personal earnings are viewed as a measure of merit and esteem.

    Instead, we would instead read about buy into the idea that success in our work life is a merely a matter of being more productive. If you just follow the ‘right’ set of algorithms or rules, you too can achieve ‘success’ in your work life, along with fame and recognition and a fat bank account.

    Richard Whittall

    So, to finish, let me revisit a link I shared recently from Jason Hickel. We can choose to live differently, to recognise the abundance of time and resources we have in the world. To slow down, to take stock, and reject economic growth as in any way a useful indicator of human flourishing:

    It doesn’t have to be this way. We can call a halt to the madness – throw a wrench in the juggernaut. By de-enclosing social goods and restoring the commons, we can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life without having to generate piles of income in order to do so, and without feeding the never-ending growth machine. “Private riches” may shrink, as Lauderdale pointed out, but public wealth will increase.

    Jason Hickel

    It doesn't have to be difficult. We can just, as Dan Lyons mentions in his book Lab Rats, decide to work on things that 'close the gap' or 'increase the gap'. What that means to you, in your context, is a different matter.

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