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Situations can be described but not given names

So said that most enigmatic of philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Today’s article is about the effect of external stimulants on us as human beings, whether or not we can adequately name them.

Let’s start with music, one of my favourite things in all the world. If the word ‘passionate’ hadn’t been devalued from rampant overuse, I’d say that I’m passionate about music. One of the reasons is because it produces such a dramatic physiological response in me; my hairs stand on end and I get a surge of endophins — especially if I’m also running.

That’s why Greg Evans‘ piece for The Independent makes me feel quite special. He reports on (admittedly small-scale) academic research which shows that some people really do feel music differently to others:

Matthew Sachs a former undergraduate at Harvard, last year studied individuals who get chills from music to see how this feeling was triggered.

The research examined 20 students, 10 of which admitted to experiencing the aforementioned feelings in relation to music and 10 that didn’t and took brain scans of all of them all.

He discovered that those that had managed to make the emotional and physical attachment to music actually have different brain structures than those that don’t.

The research showed that they tended to have a denser volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex and areas that process emotions, meaning the two can communicate better.

Greg Evans

This totally makes sense to me. I’m extremely emotionally invested in almost everything I do, especially my work. For example, I find it almost unbearably difficult to work on something that I don’t agree with or think is important.

The trouble with this, of course, and for people like me, is that unless we’re careful we’re much more likely to become ‘burned out’ by our work. Nate Swanner reports for Dice that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently recognised burnout as a legitimate medical syndrome:

The actual definition is difficult to pin down, but the WHO defines burnout by these three markers:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Interestingly enough, the actual description of burnout asks that all three of the above criteria be met. You can’t be really happy and not producing at work; that’s not burnout.

As the article suggests, now burnout is a recognised medical term, we now face the prospect of employers being liable for causing an environment that causes burnout in their employees. It will no longer, hopefully, be a badge of honour to have burned yourself out for the sake of a venture capital-backed startup.

Having experienced burnout in my twenties, the road to recovery can take a while, and it has an effect on the people around you. You have to replace negative thoughts and habits with new ones. I ultimately ended up moving both house and sectors to get over it.

As Jason Fried notes on Signal v. Noise, we humans always form habits:

When we talk about habits, we generally talk about learning good habits. Or forming good habits. Both of these outcomes suggest we can end up with the habits we want. And technically we can! But most of the habits we have are habits we ended up with after years of unconscious behavior. They’re not intentional. They’ve been planting deep roots under the surface, sight unseen. Fertilized, watered, and well-fed by recurring behavior. Trying to pull that habit out of the ground later is going to be incredibly difficult. Your grip has to be better than its grip, and it rarely is.

Jason Fried

This is a great analogy. It’s easy for weeds to grow in the garden of our mind. If we’re not careful, as Fried points out, these can be extremely difficult to get rid of once established. That’s why, as I’ve discussed before, tracking one’s habits is itself a good habit to get into.

Over a decade ago, a couple of years after suffering from burnout, I wrote a post outlining what I rather grandly called The Vortex of Uncompetence. Let’s just say that, if you recognise yourself in any of what I write in that post, it’s time to get out. And quickly.


Also check out:

  • Your Kids Think You’re Addicted to Your Phone (The New York Times) — “Most parents worry that their kids are addicted to the devices, but about four in 10 teenagers have the same concern about their parents.”
  • Why the truth about our sugar intake isn’t as bad as we are told (New Scientist) — “In fact, the UK government ‘Family food datasets’, which have detailed UK household food and drink expenditure since 1974, show there has been a 79 per cent decline in the use of sugar since 1974 – not just of table sugar, but also jams, syrups and honey.”
  • Can We Live Longer But Stay Younger? (The New Yorker) — “Where fifty years ago it was taken for granted that the problem of age was a problem of the inevitable running down of everything, entropy working its worst, now many researchers are inclined to think that the problem is “epigenetic”: it’s a problem in reading the information—the genetic code—in the cells.”

There’s no perfection where there’s no selection

So said Baltasar Gracián. One of the reasons that e-portfolios never really took off was because there’s so much to read. Can you imagine sifting through hundreds of job applications where each applicant had a fully-fledged e-portfolio, including video content?

That’s why I’ve been so interested in Open Badges, and have written plenty on the subject over the last eight years. If you’re new to the party, there are various terms such as ‘microcredentials’, ‘digital badges’, and ‘digital credentials’. The difference is in the standard which was previously stewarded by Mozilla (including at my time there) and now by IMS Global Learning Consortium.

When I left Mozilla, I did a lot of work with City & Guilds, an awarding body that’s well known for its vocational qualifications. They took a particular interest in Open Badges, for obvious reasons. In this article for FE News, Kirstie Donnelly (Managing Director of the City & Guilds Group) explains their huge potential:

The fact that you can actually stack these credentials, and they become portable, then you can publish them through online, through your LinkedIn. I just think it puts a very different dynamic into how the learner owns their experience, but at the same time the employers and the education system can still influence very much how those credentials are built and stacked.

Kirstie Donnelly

Like it or not, a lot of education is ‘signalling’ — i.e. providing an indicator that you can do a thing. The great thing about Open Badges is that you can make credentials much more granular and, crucially, include evidence of your ability to do the thing you claim to be able to do.

As Tyler Cowen picks up on for Marginal Revolution, without this granularity, there’s a knock-on effect upon societal inequality. Privilege is perpetuated. He quotes a working paper by Gaurab Aryal, Manudeep Bhuller, and Fabian Lange who state:

The social and the private returns to education differ when education can increase productivity and also be used to signal productivity. We show how instrumental variables can be used to separately identify and estimate the social and private returns to education within the employer learning framework of Farber and Gibbons (1996) and Altonji and Pierret (2001). What an instrumental variable identifies depends crucially on whether the instrument is hidden from or observed by the employers. If the instrument is hidden, it identifies the private returns to education, but if the instrument is observed by employers, it identifies the social returns to education.

Aryal, Bhuller, and Lange

I take this to mean that, in a marketplace, the more the ‘buyers’ (i.e. employers) understand what’s on offer, the more this changes the way that ‘sellers’ (i.e. potential employees) position themselves. Open Badges and other technologies can help with this.

Understandably, a lot is made of digital credentials for recruitment. Indeed, I’ve often argued that badges are important at times of transition — whether into a job, on the job, or onto your next job. But they are also important for reasons other than employment.

Lauren Acree, writing for Digital Promise explains how they can be used to foster more inclusive classrooms:

The Learner Variability micro-credentials ask educators to better understand students as learners. The micro-credentials support teachers as they partner with students in creating learning environments that address learners’ needs, leverage their strengths, and empower students to reflect and adjust as needed. We found that micro-credentials are one important way we can ultimately build teacher capacity to meet the needs of all learners.

Lauren Acree

The article includes this image representing a taxonomy of how teachers use micro-credentials in their work:

If we zoom out even further, we can see that micro-credentials as a form of ‘currency’ could play a big role in how we re-imagine society. Tim Riches, who I collaborated with while at both Mozilla and City & Guilds, has written a piece for the RSA about the ‘Cities of Learning’ projects that he’s been involved in. All of these have used badges in some form or other.

In formal education, the value of learning is measured in qualifications. However, qualifications only capture a snapshot of what we know, not what we can do. What’s more, they tend to measure routine skills – the ones most vulnerable to automation and outsourcing.

[…]

Cities are full of people with unrecognised talents and potential. Cities are a huge untapped resource. Skills are developed every day in the community, at work and online, but they are hidden from view – disconnected from formal education and employers.

Tim Riches

I don’t live in a city, and don’t necessarily see them as the organising force here, but I do think that, on a societal level, there’s something about recognising potential. Tim includes a graphic in his article which, I think, captures this nicely:

There’s a phrase that’s often used by feminist writers: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. In other words, if you don’t have any role models in a particular area, you’re unlikely to think of exploring it. Similarly, if you don’t know anyone who’s a lawyer, or a sailor, or a horse rider, it’s not perhaps something you’d think of doing.

If we can wrest control of innovations such as Open Badges away from the incumbents, and focus on human flourishing, I can see real opportunities for what Serge Ravet and others call ‘open recognition‘. Otherwise, we’re just co-opting them to prop up and perpetuate the existing, unequal system.


Also check out:

Friday fathomings

I enjoyed reading these:


Image via Indexed

There’s no viagra for enlightenment

This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.

First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:

In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.

Mark Wilson

As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:

With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.

Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.

[…]

This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.

Jessica Lindsay

It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.

The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.

Karen Hao

The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.

However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.

There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.

[…]

In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.

Mike Caulfield

This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.

Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.


Also check out:

Wretched is a mind anxious about the future

So said one of my favourite non-fiction authors, the 16th century proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne. There’s plenty of writing about how we need to be anxious because of the drift towards a future of surveillance states. Eventually, because it’s not currently affecting us here and now, we become blasé. We forget that it’s already the lived experience for hundreds of millions of people.

Take China, for example. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the Chinese government’s brutality against the Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang:

[The] horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

Derek Thompson

As Ian Welsh points out, surveillance states usually involve us in the West pointing towards places like China and shaking our heads. However, if you step back a moment and remember that societies like the US and UK are becoming more unequal over time, then perhaps we’re the ones who should be worried:

The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back thru your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was OK 10 or 30 years ago isn’t OK now, well they can get you on that.

Ian Welsh

As the world becomes more unequal, the position of elites becomes more perilous, hence Silicon Valley billionaires preparing boltholes in New Zealand. Ironically, they’re looking for places where they can’t be found, while making serious money from providing surveillance technology. Instead of solving the inequality, they attempt to insulate themselves from the effect of that inequality.

A lot of the crazy amounts of money earned in Silicon Valley comes at the price of infringing our privacy. I’ve spent a long time thinking about quite nebulous concept. It’s not the easiest thing to understand when you examine it more closely.

Privacy is usually considered a freedom from rather than a freedom to, as in “freedom from surveillance”. The trouble is that there are many kinds of surveillance, and some of these we actively encourage. A quick example: I know of at least one family that share their location with one another all of the time. At the same time, of course, they’re sharing it with the company that provides that service.

There’s a lot of power in the ‘default’ privacy settings devices and applications come with. People tend to go with whatever comes as standard. Sidney Fussell writes in The Atlantic that:

Many apps and products are initially set up to be public: Instagram accounts are open to everyone until you lock them… Even when companies announce convenient shortcuts for enhancing security, their products can never become truly private. Strangers may not be able to see your selfies, but you have no way to untether yourself from the larger ad-targeting ecosystem.

Sidney Fussell

Some of us (including me) are willing to trade some of that privacy for more personalised services that somehow make our lives easier. The tricky thing is when it comes to employers and state surveillance. In these cases there are coercive power relationships at play, rather than just convenience.

Ellen Sheng, writing for CNBC explains how employees in the US are at huge risk from workplace surveillance:

In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree. That is, unless lawmakers introduce laws that explicitly state a company can’t make workers agree to a technology…

One example: Companies are increasingly interested in employee social media posts out of concern that employee posts could reflect poorly on the company. A teacher’s aide in Michigan was suspended in 2012 after refusing to share her Facebook page with the school’s superintendent following complaints about a photo she had posted. Since then, dozens of similar cases prompted lawmakers to take action. More than 16 states have passed social media protections for individuals.

Ellen Sheng

It’s not just workplaces, though. Schools are hotbeds for new surveillance technologies, as Benjamin Herold notes in an article for Education Week:

Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.

[…]

While schools are typically quiet about their monitoring of public social media posts, they generally disclose to students and parents when digital content created on district-issued devices and accounts will be monitored. Such surveillance is typically done in accordance with schools’ responsible-use policies, which students and parents must agree to in order to use districts’ devices, networks, and accounts.
Hypothetically, students and families can opt out of using that technology. But doing so would make participating in the educational life of most schools exceedingly difficult.

Benjamin Herold

In China, of course, a social credit system makes all of this a million times worse, but we in the West aren’t heading in a great direction either.

We’re entering a time where, by the time my children are my age, companies, employers, and the state could have decades of data from when they entered the school system through to them finding jobs, and becoming parents themselves.

There are upsides to all of this data, obviously. But I think that in the midst of privacy-focused conversations about Amazon’s smart speakers and Google location-sharing, we might be missing the bigger picture around surveillance by educational institutions, employers, and governments.

Returning to Ian Welsh to finish up, remember that it’s the coercive power relationships that make surveillance a bad thing:

Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

Ian Welsh

We don’t want to think about all of this, though, do we?


Also check out:

Only thoughts conceived while walking have any value

Philosopher and intrepid walker Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for today’s quotation-as-title. Fellow philosopher Immanuel Kant was a keen walker, too, along with Henry David Thoreau. There’s just something about big walks and big thoughts.

I spent a good part of yesterday walking about 30km because I woke wanting to see the sea. It has a calming effect on me, and my wife was at work with the car. Forty-thousand steps later, I’d not only succeeded in my mission and taken the photo that accompanies this post, but managed to think about all kinds of things that definitely wouldn’t have entered my mind had I stayed at home.

I want to focus the majority of this article on a single piece of writing by Craig Mod, whose walk across Japan I followed by SMS. Instead of sharing the details of his 620 mile, six-week trek via social media, he instead updated a server which then sent text messages (with photographs, so technically MMS) to everyone who’d signed up to receive them. Readers could reply, but he didn’t receive these until he’d finished the walk and they’d been automatically curated into a book and sent to him.

Writing in WIRED, Mod talks of his “glorious, almost-disconnected walk” which was part experiment, part protest:

I have configured servers, written code, built web pages, helped design products used by millions of people. I am firmly in the camp that believes technology is generally bending the world in a positive direction. Yet, for me, Twitter foments neurosis, Facebook sadness, Google News a sense of foreboding. Instagram turns me covetous. All of them make me want to do it—whatever “it” may be—for the likes, the comments. I can’t help but feel that I am the worst version of myself, being performative on a very short, very depressing timeline. A timeline of seconds.

[…]

So, a month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. Maybe even a protest. I wanted to test hypotheses. Our smartphones are incredible machines, and to throw them away entirely feels foolhardy. The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. To bask in serendipitous surrealism, not just as steps between reloading my streams. I wanted to experience time.

Craig Mod

I love this, it’s so inspiring. The most number of consecutive days I’ve walked is only two, so I can’t even really imagine what it must be like to walk for weeks at a time. It’s a form of meditation, I suppose, and a way to re-centre oneself.

The longness of an activity is important. Hours or even days don’t really cut it when it comes to long. “Long” begins with weeks. Weeks of day-after-day long walking days, 30- or 40-kilometer days. Days that leave you wilted and aware of all the neglect your joints and muscles have endured during the last decade of sedentary YouTubing.

[…]

In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.

Craig Mod

I find that when I walk for any period of time, certain songs start going through my head. Yesterday, for example, my brain put on repeat the song Good Enough by Dodgy from their album Free Peace Sweet. The time before it was We Can Do It from Jamiroquai’s latest album Automaton. I’m not sure where it comes from, although the beat does have something to do with my pace.

Walking by oneself seems to do something to the human brain akin to unlocking the subconscious. That’s why I’m not alone in calling it a ‘meditative’ activity. While I enjoy walking with others, the brain seems to start working a different way when you’re by yourself being propelled by your own two legs.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not ‘keeping up’ with work, with family and friends, and with the news. The truth is, however, that the most important person to ‘keep up’ with is yourself. Having a strong sense of self, I believe, is the best way to live a life with meaning.

It might sound ‘boring’ to go for a long walk, but as Alain de Botton notes in The News: a user’s manual, getting out of our routine is sometimes exactly what we need:

What we colloquially call ‘feeling bored’ is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.

Alain de Botton

I’m not going to tell you what I thought about during my walk today as, outside of the rich (inner and outer) context in which the thinking took place, whatever I write would probably sound banal.

To me, however, the thoughts I had today will, like all of the thoughts I’ve had while doing some serious walking, help me organise my future actions. Perhaps that’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that only thoughts conceived while walking have any value.


Also check out:

  • One step ahead: how walking opens new horizons (The Guardian) — “Walking provides just enough diversion to occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the surface.”
  • A Philosophy of Walking (Frédéric Gros) — “a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us.”
  • What 10,000 Steps Will Really Get You (The Atlantic) — “While basic guidelines can be helpful when they’re accurate, human health is far too complicated to be reduced to a long chain of numerical imperatives. For some people, these rules can even do more harm than good.”

What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee

So said Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In this article, I want to apply that to our use of technology as well as the stories we tell one another about that technology use.

Let’s start with an excellent post by Nolan Lawson, who when I started using Twitter less actually deleted his account and went all-in on the Fediverse. He maintains a Mastodon web client called Pinafore, and is a clear-headed thinker on all things open. The post is called Tech veganism and sums up the problem I have with holier-than-thou open advocates:

I find that there’s a bit of a “let them eat cake” attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (“Let them use Linux” could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?

To be a vegan, all you have to do is stop eating animal products. To be a tech vegan, you have to join an elite guild of tech wizards and master their secret arts. And even then, you’re probably sneaking a forbidden bite of Google or Apple every now and then.

Nolan Lawson

It’s that second paragraph that’s the killer for me. I’m pescetarian and probably about the equivalent of that, in Lawson’s lingo, when it comes to my tech choices. I definitely agree with him that the conversation is already changing away from open source and free software to what Mark Zuckerberg (shudder) calls “time well spent”:

I also suspect that tech veganism will begin to shift, if it hasn’t already. I think the focus will become less about open source vs closed source (the battle of the last decade) and more about digital well-being, especially in regards to privacy, addiction, and safety. So in this way, it may be less about switching from Windows to Linux and more about switching from Android to iOS, or from Facebook to more private channels like Discord and WhatsApp.

Nolan Lawson

This is reminiscent of Yancey Strickler‘s notion of ‘dark forests’. I can definitely see more call for nuance around private and public spaces.

So much of this, though, depends on your worldview. Everyone likes the idea of ‘freedom’, but are we talking about ‘freedom from‘ or ‘freedom to‘? How important are different types of freedom? Should all information be available to everyone? Where do rights start and responsibilities stop (and vice-versa)?

One thing I’ve found fascinating is how the world changes and debates get left behind. For example, the idea (and importance) of Linux on the desktop has been something that people have been discussing most of my adult life. At the same time, cloud computing has changed the game, with a lot of the data processing and heavy lifting being done by servers — most of which are powered by Linux!

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, said in a recent interview:

I think the bigger challenge has been that we haven’t invented anything in the Linux that was like deeply, powerfully ahead of its time… if in the free software community we only allow ourselves to talk about things that look like something that already exists, then we’re sort of defining ourselves as a series of forks and fragmentations.

Mark Shuttleworth

This is a problem that’s wider than just software. Those of us who are left-leaning are more likely to let small ideological differences dilute our combined power. That affects everything from opposing Brexit, to getting people to switch to Linux. There’s just too much noise, too many competing options.

Meanwhile, as the P2P Foundation notes, businesses swoop in and use open licenses to enclose the Commons:

[I]t is clear that these Commons have become an essential infrastructure without which the Internet could no longer function today (90% of the world’s servers run on Linux, 25% of websites use WordPress, etc.) But many of these projects suffer from maintenance and financing problems, because their development depends on communities whose means are unrelated to the size of the resources they make available to the whole world.

[…]

This situation corresponds to a form of tragedy of the Commons, but of a different nature from that which can strike material resources. Indeed, intangible resources, such as software or data, cannot by definition be over-exploited and they even increase in value as they are used more and more. But tragedy can strike the communities that participate in the development and maintenance of these digital commons. When the core of individual contributors shrinks and their strengths are exhausted, information resources lose quality and can eventually wither away.

P2P Foundation

So what should we do? One thing we’ve done with MoodleNet is to ensure that it has an AGPL license, one that Google really doesn’t like. They state perfectly the reasons why we selected it:

The primary risk presented by AGPL is that any product or service that depends on AGPL-licensed code, or includes anything copied or derived from AGPL-licensed code, may be subject to the virality of the AGPL license. This viral effect requires that the complete corresponding source code of the product or service be released to the world under the AGPL license. This is triggered if the product or service can be accessed over a remote network interface, so it does not even require that the product or service is actually distributed.

Google

So, in other words, if you run a server with AGPL code, or create a project with source code derived from it, you must make that code available to others. To me, it has the same ‘viral effect’ as the Creative Commons BY-SA license.

As Benjamin “Mako” Hill points out in a recent keynote, we need to be a bit more wise when it comes to ‘choosing a side’. Cory Doctorow, summarising Mako’s keynote says:

[M]arkets discovered free software and turned it into “open source,” figuring out how to create developer communities around software (“digital sharecropping”) that lowered their costs and increased their quality. Then the companies used patents and DRM and restrictive terms of service to prevent users from having any freedom.

Mako says that this is usually termed “strategic openness,” in which companies take a process that would, by default, be closed, and open the parts of it that make strategic sense for the firm. But really, this is “strategic closedness” — projects that are born open are strategically enclosed by companies to allow them to harvest the bulk of the value created by these once-free systems.

[…]

Mako suggests that the time in which free software and open source could be uneasy bedfellows is over. Companies’ perfection of digital sharecropping means that when they contribute to “free” projects, all the freedom will go to them, not the public.

Cory Doctorow

It’s certainly an interesting time we live in, when the people who are pointing out all of the problems (the ‘tech vegans’) are seen as the problem, and the VC-backed companies as the disruptive champions of the people. Tech follows politics, though, I guess.


Also check out:

  • Is High Quality Software Worth the Cost? (Martin Fowler) — “I thus divide software quality attributes into external (such as the UI and defects) and internal (architecture). The distinction is that users and customers can see what makes a software product have high external quality, but cannot tell the difference between higher or lower internal quality.”
  • What the internet knows about you (Axios) — “The big picture: Finding personal information online is relatively easy; removing all of it is nearly impossible.”
  • Against Waldenponding II (ribbonfarm) — “Waldenponding is a search for meaning that is circumscribed by the what you might call the spiritual gravity field of an object or behavior held up as ineffably sacred. “

Friday fabrications

These things made me sit up and take notice:


Image via xkcd

Men fear wanderers for they have no rules

A few years ago, when I was at Mozilla, a colleague mentioned a series of books by Bernard Cornwell called The Last Kingdom. It seemed an obvious fit for me, he said, given that my interest in history and that I live in Northumberland. A couple of years later, I got around to reading the series, and loved it. The quote that serves as the title for this article is from the second book in the series: The Pale Horseman.

Another book I read that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy was Ender’s Game, a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. I was looking for a quotation about Ender’s access to networks when I came across this one from another one of the author’s novels:

“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”

Orson Scott Card

Some people say that you’re the average of the five people with which you surround yourself. In this day and age, ‘surrounding yourself’ isn’t necessarily a physical activity, it’s to do with your interactions, however they occur.

It’s easy to think about the time we spend at home with our nearest and dearest, but what about our networked interactions? For example, I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with Dai Barnes recently, so that might count as an example — and so might the time we spend on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks.

All of this brings us to an article I came across via Aaron Davis. Entitled The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Yancey Strickler explains how we’re moving into a different era of interaction. He channels sci-fi author Liu Cixin:

Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.

[…]

Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.

Yancey Strickler

What Strickler doesn’t go into is the effect that this may have on western democracies. This is something, however, that is covered by an excellent book I read last week called The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett. The author explains how even mainstream social networks have become fragmented:

Over the last few years… the nature of political disagreement has changed. It’s gone tribal. It is becoming hyper-partisan, characterised by fierce group loyalty that sometimes approaches leader workshop, a tendency to overlook one’s own failing while exaggerating one’s enemies and a dislike of compromise with opponents.

Jamie Bartlett

Bartlett cites the work of cyber-psychologist John Suler, who theorises about why people act differently online:

Suler argues that because we don’t know or see the people we are speaking to (and they don’t know or see us), because communication is instant, seemingly without rules or accountability, and because it all takes place in what feels like an alternative reality, we do things we wouldn’t in real life. Suler calls this ‘toxic disinhibition’. This is what all the articles about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ miss. The internet doesn’t only create small tribes: it also gives easy access to enemy tribes. I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

Jamie Bartlett

We’re witnessing the breakdown of the attempt to create general-purpose social networks. Instead, just like the offline world, we’ll end up with different spaces and areas for different purposes. Here’s a Slack channel to talk with former colleagues; here’s a Telegram group to talk with your family; here’s a Twitter account to share blog posts with your followers.

I’m not so sure this is such a bad thing, to be honest. So long as those spaces aren’t subject to the kind of dark advertising that’s led to political havoc and ramifications over the last few years, I see it as a sort of rebalancing.


Also check out:

  • A parent’s guide to raising a good digital citizen (Engadget) — “How do kids learn digital citizenship? The same way they learn how to be good citizens: They watch good role models, and they practice.”
  • Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? (The New Yorker) — “When you confine your online activities to so-called walled-garden networks, you end up using interfaces that benefit the owners of those networks.”
  • I was wrong about networks (George Siemens) — “I’ll hold to my mantra that it’s networks all the way down. I need to add a critical caveat: all connections and networks occur within a system.”

We give nothing so generously as our advice

Thanks François de La Rochefoucauld, but despite the above title coming from you (c.1678) , this post is actually inspired by Warren Ellis. I subscribe to many, many newsletters, and one of my favourites is Ellis’ Orbital Operations, which goes out every Sunday.

Recently, Ellis talked about the development of his newsletter, over the course of a four-part ‘blogchain‘. I’ve been meaning to write up how Thought Shrapnel has evolved recently, so I’m going to use this as a prompt to do so.

Patreon page for Thought Shrapnel
Patreon page for Thought Shrapnel

First up, Thought Shrapnel is now primarily a website with an email roundup. It’s not any more, strictly speaking, a ‘newsletter’. There’s around 1,500 people who subscribe to the email that I send out every Sunday, and 56 of those support its continued existence via Patreon.

This site uses WordPress with a number of plugins. I host it via a Digital Ocean droplet and pay for Jetpack to get automatic daily backups and better statistics. I schedule posts every weekday which are immediately accessible to supporters, and then available on the open web a week later.

Here’s three plugins that really help with my new workflow:

  • Add widget after comment — allows me to add automatically after a post anything I’d usually add to a sidebar. I use it to encourage people to become supporters.
  • MailPoet — I use this to automatically send out each post to supporters and to curate the weekly round-up to both supporters and subscribers.
  • tao-schedule-update — means I can schedule updates to already published posts, changing categories, visibility, etc.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with Instapaper, social bookmarking sites, Evernote, and all sorts of things for saving things over the years. Right now, I’m using Pocket to rediscover things I come across that I’d like to read later. That means that when I sit down to write, I find something interesting and then look for something else I could link it with. Eventually, I come up with six links that in some way go together and then I write something based on those.

In terms of the title for my articles, I’ve started using quotations. These tend to come from Kindle highlights or dead-tree books I’ve read. Sometimes they just come from Goodreads. Either way, I’ve got a bunch of drafts with just the title and the attribution ready to go.

Images to accompany articles used to come almost exclusively from Unsplash, but I’ve recently added Pixabay into the mix to add a bit of variety. Neither sites require attribution.

Chart showing visitors to thoughtshrapnel.com during May 2019

It’s interesting to me to see the cadence of visitors to Thought Shrapnel over the course of a week. It’s pretty obvious to see which day is Sunday, as that’s when I send out the round-up email!

What I really like about my current setup is that everything is now controlled by me. I spend about £10/month on Digital Ocean, Jetpack is £33/year, and MailPoet is free up to 2,000 users. The domain name is about £16/year. All in all, for about £15/month I’ve got a secure, fast-loading site of which I’m in complete control.

Some people use the idea of a Commonplace book to describe what they do. Warren Ellis talks of a ‘Republic of Newsletters’ to evoke a modern-day equivalent of the so-called Republic of Letters amongst the 17th and 18th century intellectual community. Me? I’m just happy to create something that I enjoy writing and from which other people seem to gain value!


PS for those wondering, the excellent Thought Shrapnel logo is courtesy of Bryan Mathers and is available as a sticker for $3/month supporters!