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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!

Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them

So said Ivan Illich. Another person I can imagine saying that is Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps my favourite philosopher of all time. He famously lived in a large barrel, sometimes pretended he was a dog, and allegedly told Alexander the Great to stand out of his sunlight.

What a guy. The thing that Diogenes understood is that freedom is much more important than power. That’s the subject of a New York Times Op-Ed by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreiger, who explains:

I would define power as the ability to make other people do what you want; freedom is the ability to do what you want. Like gravity and acceleration, these are two forces that appear to be different but are in fact one. Freedom is the defensive, or pre-emptive, form of power: the power that’s necessary to resist all the power the world attempts to exert over us from day one. So immense and pervasive is this force that it takes a considerable counterforce just to restore and maintain mere autonomy. Who was ultimately more powerful: the conqueror Alexander, who ruled the known world, or the philosopher Diogenes, whom Alexander could neither offer nor threaten with anything? (Alexander reportedly said that if he weren’t Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes. Diogenes said that if he weren’t Diogenes, he’d want to be Diogenes too.)

Tim Kreider

Of course, Tim is a privileged white dude, just like me. His opinion piece does, however, give us an interesting way into the cultural phenomenon of young white men opting out of regular employment.

As Andrew Fiouzi writes for Mel Magazine, the gap between what you’re told (and what you see your older relatives achieving) and what you’re offered can sometimes be stark. Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is cited by Fiouzi in the article.

While there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, Madowitz says it has little to do with the common narrative that millennial men are too busy playing video games. Instead, he argues that millennials… who entered the labor market at a time when it was less likely than ever to adequately reward them for their work — “I couldn’t get any interviews and I tried doing some freelance stuff, but I could barely find anything, so I took an unpaid internship at a design agency,” says [one example] — were simply less likely to feel the upside of working.

Andrew Fiouzi

By default in our western culture, no matter how much a man earns, if he’s in a hetrosexual relationship, then it’s the woman who becomes the care-giver after they have children. I think that’s changing a bit, and men are more likely to at least share the responsibilities.

So in the end, it may be the very inflexibility of an economy built on traditional gender roles that ultimately brings down the male-dominated labor apparatus, one stay-at-home dad at a time.

ANDREW FIOUZI

Part of the problem, I think, is the constant advice to ‘follow your heart’ and find work that’s ‘your passion’. While I think you absolutely should be guided by your values, how that plays out depends a lot on context.

Pavithra Mohan takes this up in an article for Fast Company. She writes:

Sometimes, compensation or job function may be more important to you than meaning, while at other times location and flexibility may take precedence. 

[…]

Something that can get lost in the conversation around meaningful work is that even pursuing it takes privilege.

[…]

Making an impact can also mean very different things to different people. If you feel fulfilled by your family or social life, for example, being connected to your work may not—and need not—be of utmost importance. You might find more meaning in volunteer work or believe you can make more of an impact by practicing effective altruism and putting the money you earn towards charitable causes. 

Pavithra Mohan

I’ve certainly been thinking about that this Bank Holiday weekend. What gets squeezed out in your personal life, when you’re busy trying to find the perfect ‘work’ life? Or, to return to a question that Jocelyn K. Glei asks, who are you without the doing?


Also check out:

  • Is pleasure all that is good about experience? (Journal of Philosophical Studies) — “In this article I present the claim that hedonism is not the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing. The value of experience should not be understood as being limited to pleasure, and as such, the most plausible experientialist account of wellbeing is pluralistic, not hedonistic.”
  • Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech (The Glowforge Blog) — “What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.”
  • Why Play a Music CD? ‘No Ads, No Privacy Terrors, No Algorithms’ (The New York Times) — “What formerly hyped, supposedly essential technology has since been exposed for gross privacy violations, or for how easily it has become a tool for predatory disinformation?”

We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves

Today’s title comes from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which is an incredible book. Soon after the above quotation, he continues,

The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.

John Berger

That period of time when you come to be you is really interesting. As an adolescent, and before films like The Matrix, I can remember thinking that the world literally revolved around me; that other people were testing me in some way. I hope that’s kind of normal, and I’d add somewhat hastily that I grew out of that way of thinking a long time ago. Obviously.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that we cannot know the ‘inner lives’ of other people, or in fact that they have them. Writing in The Guardian, psychologist Oliver Burkeman notes that we sail through life assuming that we experience everything similarly, when that’s not true at all:

A new study on a technical-sounding topic – “genetic variation across the human olfactory receptor repertoire” – is a reminder that we smell the world differently… Researchers found that a single genetic mutation accounts for many of those differences: the way beetroot smells (and tastes) like disgustingly dirty soil to some people, or how others can’t detect the smokiness of whisky, or smell lily of the valley in perfumes.

Oliver Burkeman

I know that my wife sees colours differently to me, as purple is one of her favourite colours. Neither of us is colour-blind, but some things she calls ‘purple’ are in no way ‘purple’ to me.

So when it comes to giving one another feedback, where should we even begin? How can we know the intentions or the thought processes behind someone’s actions? In an article for Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explain that our theories about feedback are based on three theories:

  1. Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses
  2. You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your colleagues should teach them to you
  3. Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and that once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another, regardless of who each individual is

All of these, the author’s claim, are false:

What the research has revealed is that we’re all color-blind when it comes to abstract attributes, such as strategic thinking, potential, and political savvy. Our inability to rate others on them is predictable and explainable—it is systematic. We cannot remove the error by adding more data inputs and averaging them out, and doing that actually makes the error bigger.

Buckingham & Goodall

What I liked was their actionable advice about how to help colleagues thrive, captured in this table:

The Right Way to Help Colleague Excel
Taken from ‘The Feedback Fallacy’ by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Finally, as an educator and parent, I’ve noticed that human learning doesn’t follow a linear trajectory. Anything but, in fact. Yet we talk and interact as though it does. That’s why I found Good Things By Their Nature Are Fragile by Jason Kottke so interesting, quoting a 2005 post from Michael Barrish. I’m going to quote the same section as Kottke:

In 1988 Laura and I created a three-stage model of what we called “living process.” We called the three stages Good Thing, Rut, and Transition. As we saw it, Good Thing becomes Rut, Rut becomes Transition, and Transition becomes Good Thing. It’s a continuous circuit.

A Good Thing never leads directly to a Transition, in large part because it has no reason to. A Good Thing wants to remain a Good Thing, and this is precisely why it becomes a Rut. Ruts, on the other hand, want desperately to change into something else.

Transitions can be indistinguishable from Ruts. The only important difference is that new events can occur during Transitions, whereas Ruts, by definition, consist of the same thing happening over and over.

Michael Barrish

In life, sometimes we don’t even know what stage we’re in, never mind other people. So let’s cut one another some slack, dispel the three myths about feedback listed above, and allow people to be different to us in diverse and glorious ways.


Also check out:

  • Iris Murdoch, The Art of Fiction No. 117 (The Paris Review) — “I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull.”
  • How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis (The Atlantic) — “I had found my salvation in the sheer endless curiosity of the human mind—and the sheer endless variety of human experience.”
  • A brief history of almost everything in five minutes (Aeon) —According to [the artist], the piece ‘is intended for both introspection and self-reflection, as a mirror to ourselves, our own mind and how we make sense of what we see; and also as a window into the mind of the machine, as it tries to make sense of its observations and memories’.

Header image: webcomicname.com

Friday fumblings

These were the things I came across this week that made me smile:


Image via Why WhatsApp Will Never Be Secure (Pavel Durov)

One can see only what one has already seen

Fernando Pessoa with today’s quotation-as-title. He’s best known for The Book of Disquiet which he called “a factless autobiography”. It’s… odd. Here’s a sample:

Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

Fernando pessoa

I’ve been reading a lot of Seneca recently, who famously said:

Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.

Seneca

The trouble is, we try and predict the future in order to control the future. Some people have a good track record in this, partly because they are involved in shaping things in the present. Other people have a vested interest in trying to get the world to bend to their ideology.

In an article for WIRED, Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab writes about ‘extended intelligence’ being the future rather than AI:

The notion of singularity – which includes the idea that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, making everything we humans have done and will do insignificant – is a religion created mostly by people who have designed and successfully deployed computation to solve problems previously considered impossibly complex for machines.

Joi Ito

It’s a useful counter-balance to those banging the AI drum and talking about the coming jobs apocalypse.

After talking about ‘S curves’ and adaptive systems, Ito explains that:

Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines – not artificial intelligence but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems.

Joi Ito

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing some of the ideas put forward in The Weight of Light: a collection of solar futures (which is free to download in multiple formats). We need to stop listening solely to rich white guys proclaiming the Silicon Valley narrative of ‘disruption’. There are many other, much more collaborative and egalitarian, ways of thinking about and designing for the future.

This collection was inspired by a simple question: what would a world powered entirely by solar energy look like? In part, this question is about the materiality of solar energy—about where people will choose to put all the solar panels needed to power the global economy. It’s also about how people will rearrange their lives, values, relationships, markets, and politics around photovoltaic technologies. The political theorist and historian Timothy Mitchell argues that our current societies are carbon democracies, societies wrapped around the technologies, systems, and logics of oil.What will it be like, instead, to live in the photon societies of the future?

The Weight of Light: a collection of solar futures

We create the future, it doesn’t just happen to us. My concern is that we don’t recognise the signs that we’re in the last days. Someone shared this quotation from the philosopher Kierkegaard recently, and I think it describes where we’re at pretty well:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.

Søren Kierkegaard

Let’s home we collectively wake up before it’s too late.


Also check out:

  • Are we on the road to civilisation collapse? (BBC Future) — “Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.”
  • Fish farming could be the center of a future food system (Fast Company) — “Aquaculture has been shown to have 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions of beef when it’s done well, and 50% of the feed usage per unit of production as beef”
  • The global internet is disintegrating. What comes next? (BBC FutureNow) — “A separate internet for some, Facebook-mediated sovereignty for others: whether the information borders are drawn up by individual countries, coalitions, or global internet platforms, one thing is clear – the open internet that its early creators dreamed of is already gone.”